/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy / Series: Terrarch chronicles

Death's Angels

W King

William King

Death's Angels

Chapter One

“I hate those bastards. They think they are better than us just because their ears come to a point,” said the Barbarian. He chewed at the drooping strands of his long walrus moustache and glared at the scarlet-coated Terrarch courier striding away down the hill.

“No offence, Halfbreed,” the Barbarian added almost as an afterthought. He scratched his bald pate then ran his fingers through the fringe of long blonde hair surrounding it as if checking to see whether any had grown back since the last time he had done so.

“None taken,” Rik assured him. He was only nineteen years old and the Barbarian was pushing forty but that was his only advantage. Although he was tall, the Barbarian was a head taller still and almost twice as heavy. Most of that extra weight was muscle. On top of that the big man was the regimental bare-knuckle champion.

Leon gave Rik a supportive wink and then returned to packing his gear. As always, he had a clay pipe stuck jauntily in his mouth. It looked ludicrous when combined with his pinched street urchin’s features. Leon had watched his back since they were children in the rough streets of Sorrow, and Rik was glad of his presence now.

“They think they are better than you because they are immortal and wise and the chosen of God,” said Gunther, his lean face constricted with passion. “It is something you’d do well to remember.”

“If I hear one more word out of you about the chosen of your God, I’ll send you to him,” said the Barbarian. Gunther showed no fear. He was as tall as the Barbarian, and although much skinnier he had a wiry strength that made him a formidable fighter. And, of course, he had God on his side. He would need all the divine assistance he could get if he was going to fight with the Barbarian, Rik thought.

Toadface and Handsome Jan looked on with keen interest. Any moment now they would start making bets on the outcome of the fight. Toadface’s protuberant eyes bulged even more than usual now that he was excited. His long tongue licked his thick lips, making him look like a glutton contemplating a feast. Handsome Jan had stopped contemplating his profile in the shard of mirror he always carried, for a moment.

“You’d both better speak a bit lower,” said Sergeant Hef, moving between them. The top of his three-cornered hat only came up to the middle of the big men’s chests, but he had an undeniable authority. “If the pointy ears hear you, it’s a taste of the cat you’ll be getting.”

“Will it now?” said the Barbarian. “And do you think that bothers me?”

“It will if it happens,” said the Sergeant, sucking his teeth, his lined face and wrinkled expression making him look more like a monkey than ever.

"I am not one of you soft Southerners," The Barbarian said but his voice was softer now.

The Sergeant shook his head and went back to getting his gear in order in obedience to the lieutenant’s order. His long-barrelled rifle lay propped up on his rucksack.

“Have you so soon forgotten the last lashing you took?”

Rik doubted that anyone could forget a lashing. He would never forget the five lashes he had got a couple of months back, nor forgive Lieutenant Sardec for ordering it. The lick of the cat was not something that easily slipped from the mind.

The Barbarian put his finger in his mouth and became a study of a simple-minded attempt at remembrance. His blank-faced stupidity made everybody laugh, even the Sergeant, but it slipped no one’s mind that it had been less than a year since the Barbarian’s last encounter with the whipping post. He had been dragged away from that with his back bleeding, and barely conscious. The scars were visible when he took off his green tunic. He would carry them to the grave.

“I still hate the pointy eared bastards,” the Barbarian muttered. But of course he didn’t, not really, Rik thought. He disliked their Terrarch masters, resented their authority and power, and grumbled about it, but he did not truly hate them, not the way Rik did. Then again, the Terrarchs had not ruined the Barbarian’s life the way they had ruined his.

Rik hefted his heavy pack. The pot and cup and anything that might clank were wrapped inside his change of clothes. His greatcoat, not needed in the mild early spring weather, was rolled up and fastened to it by leather straps.

Before lifting the rifle he made sure all his pockets were full of wax paper cartridges, both pistols were in his belt and his tricorn hat was clamped down firmly on his head. Whatever had glory-mad Lieutenant Sardec so keen to get them out of camp was most likely not something to meet with unprepared. All the talk of war had everybody on edge, and they were far too close to the Kharadrean border for comfort. The flintlock felt reassuringly heavy in his hand.

Having made his point the Barbarian went about his business. He heaped what little gear he had into his pack and tested the heavy hill-man fighting knife he always carried on the air before sheathing it and picking up his own rifle. The knife was the size of a short-sword. The Barbarian was from Segard and like most of the denizens of his cold northern homeland he had little faith in gunpowder weapons. Having had his own share of misfires and damp powder during his four years with the army, Rik could understand that.

Off in the distance Corporal Toby bellowed orders to the rest of the Foragers. Since Toby’s speech was like an ordinary man’s shouting, the noise was not to be ignored.

“Old Toby surely likes the sound of his voice, doesn’t he?” muttered Leon, fitting his lucky goose’s feather into his tricorn the way he always did before action.

“He’s the only one,” said Rik. Leon’s laugh came out as small whistling noises vented through the pipe.

“Why is it always the poor bloody Foragers who get the hard work?” the Barbarian said.

“Because it’s our job,” said the Sergeant. “When you want rows of musketeers all marching in step you go to the line infantry; when you want things scouted it’s to the light companies you go. I would have thought that even you would have got that through your thick head by now.”

Sometimes the Sergeant took the Barbarian’s rhetorical questions too literally, Rik thought.

Soon, they had formed up in a line and were wending their way towards the great Redoubt. As they did so other squads joined them. All in all there were about ninety men, all light infantry and rangers: pretty much all the Foragers in camp at that time. Corporal Toby stood at the side of the path, his great chubby ruddy-cheeked face redder than ever as he checked off the name of every ragged-uniformed soldier who passed.

The camp was situated on a range of hills overlooking the town of Redtower. The great peaks of the Giant's Shield Mountains marched away north and south. From the hillside they had a good view of the town below and the open fields surrounding it. The great dragonspire of the Temple of the Terrarchs dominated the skyline. Leathery-skinned devilwings circled it on huge bat-like pinions, skimming over the red-tiled roofs to catch rats and pigeons and other prey in their long, serrated-toothed beaks.

All the flyers avoided the massive crimson tower of Lady Asea’s palace, as if afraid of it. They were probably right to be scared of that ancient structure. Most people were, even though the town took its name from it. They said the sorceress was two thousand years old, and steeped in sin. She was already ancient a thousand years ago when the Terrarchs conquered this world with their dragons and their wyrms, and she would probably live to see the end of it.

As ever, curiosity about what she was like warred with fear in his mind. The intrigues of Lady Asea were said to have been one of the prime causes of the civil war that had torn the Terrarch Empire apart and left it a patchwork of warring realms.

Lines of wagons converged on the town from all over. In the year they had stationed here, Rik had never seen the roads so busy. He reckoned it must be true. The army was preparing to move into Kharadrea. And in far more force than the one regiment that was normally stationed at this border post.

As they strode along, the mocking shouts from the Skywatchers distracted him.

“Going for a little walk, are we?”

“Taking a stroll in the woods?”

“Lieutenant going to teach you to shoot?”

The last was an allusion to the marksmanship contest that the Foragers had lost to the Skywatchers the previous week. Most people still could not understand how it happened. Weasel and Leon were the two best shots in the regiment. Rik had his own suspicions. There was very little Weasel would not do to win money even if it meant betting against himself. Rik was certain that the former poacher had somehow persuaded Leon to go along. The scrawny little lad had always been malleable by any evil influence, particularly when ill-gotten gains were involved.

“I’ll teach you how to sit on a bayonet,” bellowed the Barbarian, who had lost quite a lot of copper betting on his friends. It was still a sore spot with him.

“Hush,” said the Sergeant. “There will be time enough to pay them back in months to come.” It sounded like he had a plan.

Weasel loped towards them from the tent village of the camp-followers. His tatty green uniform looked worse than ever as it clung to his long lean frame. He appeared to have lost his hat again, and his narrow, bald head on its long neck made him look even more rodent-like than ever. The nostrils twitched in his huge nose as if scenting for danger.

“Nice of you to join us,” said the Sergeant. “Any later and you would be competing with the Barbarian and Gunther for a place on the whipping post.”

“Just making sure your wife was satisfied,” said Weasel. He was one of those who, without having any rank whatsoever, still managed to wield a great deal of influence in the regiment. It came by way of his involvement with the Quartermaster’s countless black-market schemes. Still, he must have been feeling particularly cocky today, or even he would not have taken that tone with the Sergeant.

Sergeant Hef raised an eyebrow. Such talk was water off a duck’s back to him. He and Marcie had been together as long as anybody could remember, had numerous sprogs and, as far as anyone knew, had never even looked at anybody else from the day they met. It would take more than Weasel’s leering insinuations to upset him.

“With the rabbits,” said Weasel, with a comedian’s timing, his tone all wounded innocence. “With the rabbits I sold her. Not what these dirty-minded louts were thinking at all.”

The Sergeant shook his head. “One day you’ll dig your own grave with that tongue of yours,” he said.

“It’s the only digging he’ll ever do,” said Gunther. “Never seen that one do a lick of work.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” said Weasel. “Tupping your girlfriend is work.”

Gunther’s face congested with rage. His hand went to the butt of his pistol but somehow Weasel’s long bony fingers already contained a knife.

“That’s enough the pair of you,” said the Sergeant, in a voice that let them both know the fun was over. For such a small man he had a lot of authority. “It’s stripes on both your backs you’ll be getting if you keep up this nonsense.”

Weasel gave him a wink. Gunther subsided into the muted fury that was almost perpetual with him when he was not quivering in awe and fear of his angry god.

“What the hell,” said the Barbarian.

“Look, Rik, a dragon,” said Leon. Somehow despite his veneer of streetwise sophistication, something in Leon’s voice made it sound as if the dragon was something wonderful he was seeing for the first time.

“I see it, Leon,” said Rik. He was a little annoyed. Like most of the Foragers he preferred his nickname to his real name. The other one brought back far too many bad memories.

The whole unit looked up as a dragon passed overhead, silhouetted against the greyish clouds. The wind of its passage ruffled their jackets. Its vast wings, massive as the sails of a caravel, cast a huge shadow on the land below. Its long serpentine neck stretched forward at full extension and the great triangular head briefly gave it the look of a spear in flight. Its rider’s polished armour glittered in the dim sunlight. It was moving at quite a pace as it spiralled in to land within the massive stone walls surrounding the Redoubt.

A mutter passed up the line of Foragers. It had been a long time since any of them had seen a dragon, since before they had been dispatched to this benighted strip of borderland, and Rik wondered what message its courier brought. He knew they were all thinking the same thing: war.

The Sergeant just shrugged and said; “We’ll know soon enough.”

They passed the camp followers washing linen in the stream and carrying buckets of water back to the patched tents and hastily built hovels that were home. Small dogs and spine-backed wyrmhounds romped in the muck. Mud clung to the women’s bare feet, and dirty-faced urchins to their shawls. Most looked hungry. It was not much fun being a soldier’s brat. Still, Rik thought, most of them had it better than he did at their age. The streets of Shadzar, the Place of Sorrow, had been hard on orphan boys, particularly on one thought to be the bastard get of a Terrarch.

Shoulders straightened and even Weasel stopped whistling as they reached the village around the Redoubt. Most of the regiment’s officers were quartered in the Inn or the low stone built houses and the Terrarchs were always sticklers for discipline. The ten storey fortress loomed above them, rising from a walled promontory that added thirty feet to its height.

Atop its tower the huge black banner from which the regiment took its name flew proudly beside the Red Dragon of Talorea. The regimental flag showed a beautiful naked woman with the wings of a dragon and a rune-encrusted scythe in her hand; Arazaela, the Angel of Death. Beneath her were inscribed the words Death’s Angels All Are We in the high tongue of the Exalted. Rik could not make out all the details at this distance but he could picture it well enough. Its replica fluttered on the standards of all nine companies.

Those banners had flown over a thousand battlefields in the five centuries since the regiments founding and would doubtless fly over a thousand more but Rik’s heart did not lift at the sight. In this he knew he was among the minority of the men. He took no great pride in walking among the Angels.

Tall scarlet-jacketed officers strode back and forth, stick-lean, their narrow ageless triangular faces covered in that expression of bored haughtiness that seemed moulded onto their features at birth. Their long pigtails of fine hair swung like the tails of stalking cats as they walked. He fought down old hatred and old fear at the sight. His own face bore a resemblance to theirs, the same finely sculpted features, the same cold purple eyes, the same ash-blonde hair, the same narrow chin; a gift from his unknown father, the only patrimony he ever got from him.

He was not sure whether the frosty looks directed at him were a product of his imagination or simple reality. Perhaps it was merely in his mind. The Terrarchs looked that way at everybody. They were the lords of creation, and had been since they conquered Gaeia a thousand years ago.

The acrid smell of wyrm filled the village air. As the men passed, ferocious hunting ripjacks lashed their long tails and slammed themselves against the bars of their iron cages, each a wingless, blood-mad, bi-pedal dragon in miniature. Hunger and hate burned in their tiny snake eyes. They raised themselves to the height of a man on huge hind legs that ended in massive claws and razor sharp dagger-like spurs. They made what looked suspiciously like obscene gestures with their tiny vestigial forearms.

Their long necks undulated serpentinely. Rik smelled the stale blood and meat on their breath as it emerged from enormous snap-toothed mouths that could take off a man’s arm at a bite. He felt the furnace blast of their ferocity. Their alien masters loved these hunting wyrms. Years before, Rik had seen a group of Terrarchs run down condemned prisoners with a pack of them. It was something he had never forgotten. There had not even been enough of the bodies left over for burning.

The Foragers fell into a neat line in the square across from the Inn. Just beyond it was the ditch with its earthwork bridge that surrounded the Redoubt. A group of Terrarch officers mounted on destriers jogged across it and rode by. Servant girls came and went carrying burdens of laundry and food under the appreciative eye of the soldiers.

Lieutenant Sardec emerged from the Inn. He moved along the line inspecting the humans with those curious cat-like Terrarch eyes. In his red uniform with its gold braid, he looked less like one of the Chosen of God and more like an emissary of the Shadow. Try as he might, Rik could not push that particularly heretical thought from his mind. He told himself it was merely his own dislike talking; the product of the endless vendetta the officer seemed to have with him.

Sardec must have sensed the thought passing through his head because he paused in front of Rik. “A button missing here, Sergeant,” he said, pointing at the open eyelet in Rik’s tunic. “See that this…soldier is given extra duties this evening. Perhaps that will teach him to take better care of her majesty’s property. If that does not teach him, there is always the lick of the cat.”

“Aye, sir,” said Sergeant Hef, his face an expressionless mask.

It annoyed Rik that he flinched when Sardec had mentioned the cat but at least he had held his mouth firmly closed. He had wanted to protest. If missing buttons were a cause for disciplinary action more than half the men in this troop should be punished. Of course, that was not what he was being singled out for. His real crime was that he looked like a Terrarch and wore the uniform of a common infantryman. Shaking his head Sardec took up a position in front of the entire regiment.

“All right, men,” Sardec said, turning the word men into a sneer in the way only one of the Elder Race could. “Listen to me. We are heading out into the hills to catch some of the raiders that have plagued these lands. We’ve got word where we’re going to find them, and we’re going to take some and hang them from the trees as an example to their brethren. No more kidnappings. No more ambushes. No more travellers going missing.”

He spoke loudly almost as if he hoped he would be overheard by hill tribe spies. That was typical of his vanity. Sardec probably thought mere word of his coming would send the tribesmen running in panic. No one said anything. The company had that much discipline in the presence of an Exalted, Foragers though they were, but a rustle of excitement passed along the line.

Despite his pique over the punishment detail, Rik noticed Weasel stiffen a little — he suspected that, at least in part, the raiders had eluded the patrols for so long because of Weasel’s efforts and the Quartermaster’s, and maybe the Barbarian’s. If there was a dishonest penny to be made, Weasel would find a way to make it.

Rik did not really blame him. All of them were dirt-poor, despised by the local farmers for stealing their sheep and their daughters, sometimes for the same purpose or so the farmers affected to believe. Until recently it had not mattered to any of them if the hill-men got away, just so long as they did not take any pot-shots at the patrols.

To be honest Rik had the impression that the Terrarchs had not really cared all that much either. They all seemed to think the Regiment had been sent here for another purpose. It had not escaped anyone's notice that they had been billeted below the mouth of Broken Tooth Pass. Across the border lay Kharadrea and beyond that the ancient enemy, the Dark Empire of Sardea. For weeks there had been rumours going back and forth about their reasons for being there. Since the death of Lord Orodruine, the struggle for the Kharadrean succession had been bitter.

Kharadrea had been a buffer between Talorea and the Dark Empire for over a hundred years. Before that it had been a battleground between the two warring factions of the Terrarch civil war for over five centuries. Now every peddler, every refugee and every mendicant monk brought stories that the regime in the East had been spending gold like water, seeking to bring Kharadrea under its wing, bribing voters in the Kharadrean parliament and paying for mercenaries to support their chosen contender.

The Legion of Exiles, a deadly force of renegade Sardean nobles and sorcerers was said to be supporting Prince Khaldarus. The Queen of Talorea and her Council could not afford to allow a Blue ruler to come to the throne. With King Aquileus of Valon ever hungry for conquest on her western border, Queen Arielle could not afford to have Kharadrea fall to the Dark Empire. That would mean Blue nations on both borders, and a two front war against a pair of the strongest land powers on the Ascalean continent. It had always only been a matter of time before the drums rolled and the trumpets sounded. It looked like that time had come.

Rik’s eyes were drawn to a small figure lurking in the door of the Inn. The Lieutenant beckoned to the man, who fell in beside him. The newcomer was armed with a very long barrelled musket, and dressed in the rough sheepskin jacket and fur hat of a mountain man. His trousers and scarf were of some blueish plaid. One thing was for sure, he was no soldier. He must be a local guide of some sort then. Perhaps the Terrarchs really were going to do something about the disappearances.

In recent months it had not just been sheep and cattle that had gone missing, but children and solitary travellers. There had been no demands for ransom which made people uneasy. The old ways had died hard in the mountains, and there were said to be some who still followed the ancient ways of worship. The mountain men had been among the most fanatical worshippers of the old Demon Gods, and had never been fully converted. Recently there had been word of some new Prophet of the elder ways rising in the hills, stirring the tribes up to new heights of religious craziness.

“This is Vosh. He is our guide,” said the Lieutenant. “Protect him with your lives.”

Sure, we’ll do that, thought Rik. Like any Forager would risk his life for somebody not in the regiment, a hill-man in particular.

The Lieutenant guided them and his new friend towards the wyrm corrals. Under the gaze of the other Exalted the squad remained silent. Privileged as the Foragers were, the Terrarchs would still take the cat to them if they thought them disrespectful, and no one could ever really be sure what one of the pointy ears would find an assault on his dignity.

The dry reptilian odour of their skin and the odd acrid stink of wyrm dung smote Rik’s nostrils as they approached the lair. He felt himself grow tense as he usually did in their presence. Bridgebacks were far less given to sudden blind rages than their winged draconic cousins or even other wyrms like ripjacks or shieldhorns, but he found them terrifying enough in their own way. He had always thought it best to exercise a healthy caution in the presence of a creature that could squash him beneath its taloned foot.

Each great scaly quadruped was as tall as a house. Their wedge-shaped heads were smaller in proportion to their bodies than a ripjack’s and their necks longer even than their upright hunting cousins. There was still a great deal of the dragon in them even if it was a dragon grown fat and slow and stupid. Their enormous beaked mouths, so like those of a snapping turtle, could take off a man’s limb as easily as a seamstress’s scissors snipped cloth.

There were about twenty of the great wyrms in this corral. Some of the females in must were leagues away in a separate corral lest their scent get the males all upset and fighting. The others were out on patrol or had been loaned out to various local farmers for work clearing the land of tree stumps and such.

The Queen’s army liked to keep its components busy, be they man, beast or Terrarch. And it liked those components to turn a profit if they could. It was an article of faith among the Supreme Command that war must finance itself. In peace too, an army must pay its way if it could. Of course most of the gold would find its way into the pockets of the officers but the Queen did not grudge them it. It helped pay for their fine scarlet uniforms and their truesilver blades.

Lieutenant Sardec strode forward and lectured the mahouts. Sardec made a point of letting everybody know he came of old dragon-riding stock, lack a dragon though he currently might, so his manner was frosty.

It appeared he was expected. Ten of the bridgebacks were ready, kneeling on all four great columnar legs, with howdahs strapped on their backs. The wyrm's heads turned to survey the Foragers as they approached. There was a strong suggestion of brute curiosity in their small reptilian eyes.

As the men got closer one of wyrms hissed like a boiling kettle steaming on a fire. It made as if to rise, and some of the Foragers flinched back and raised their rifles. Bridgebacks had been known to run amok. One of the drivers said something in the low secret language of his caste. The wyrm subsided again, and became peaceful save for the way it tasted the air with its long flickering tongue. Occasionally it felt for its drivers face with it, and he let it do so with every sign of affection. Rik was not sure he could have stood that himself.

“Mount up,” said the Lieutenant, and the soldiers swarmed up the rope ladders into the howdahs. Somehow a dozen got onto one wyrm and eight onto another and they spent a couple of minutes getting the numbers balanced while the drivers prepared their beasts for the off, snapping metal clips into place within the beast’s sensitive ear-holes. By pulling the reins attached to the ears and shouting commands they guided their massive charges to and fro.

The noise of the bridgebacks was so loud it almost drowned out Corporal Toby’s shouts. Eventually all the mahouts had taken up their position on the high partially enclosed prow of the howdahs, screened off from the soldiers within by thick wooden walls designed to protect them from enemy fire.

As they made ready to depart another figure appeared, one that Rik was not in the least glad to see. It was a Terrarch, dressed in a long jewel-buttoned red greatcoat, but even leaner and thinner than usual and with the top half of his face obscured by a moulded silver mask. Instead of having his white hair long and pigtailed, his head was shaven and tattooed with Elder Signs. They matched the inscribed bits of runestone that dangled from his neck and ears.

“Looks like we got ourselves a wizard for company,” muttered the Barbarian, as the newcomer joined Sardec in his howdah. The rest of the men groaned almost audibly. “Master Severin is coming with us.”

The mage’s presence made Rik nervous. He had his own secret reasons to fear them. Why was the wizard accompanying them? Mages usually did not go with patrols. They were too busy studying the stars, brewing spells and potions, and scaring the hell out of lesser mortals around camp.

“Move out!” shouted Lieutenant Sardec.

Chapter Two

The lead mahout blew his signal horn. The drivers gave their strange hissing call and struck their beasts on the back of the neck with their pike-length staves. With a stomach-sickening lurch the bridgeback rose and Rik found himself twice the height of a man above the ground. He felt the usual moment of fear. Sometimes straps snapped or buckles on howdahs gave way and they tumbled to earth, leaving their contents to be trampled under the claws of the wyrms. Another prod, another hiss and the beasts strode towards the distant hills.

Rik had heard a great deal about the sense of power being astride a bridgeback gave. It was nonsense. He felt very much at the mercy of the twenty ton creature carrying him. He had no control over the thing whatsoever, a fact brought home to him with every uncomfortable step. He felt like a sailor on the deck of a ship in a choppy sea.

Occasionally the wyrm turned its long, long neck to look at the occupants of the howdah and he felt as if he was being weighed up as a snack. He could almost feel the hunger that burned like fire in the creature’s belly.

He was embarrassed by the sense of relief he felt as it gave its attention back to the leaves of passing trees. Occasionally the huge tail whipped upward and long snakes of turd emerged. They turned into pungent pancakes as they smacked the ground. There was a lot of farting as well, which the Barbarian claimed was probably how alchemists produced the fatal gas they captured in their glass grenades. He should know, Rik thought, since he was a master producer of flatulence himself.

As they marched he thought about how many people were misled by the great parades they saw in Place of Sorrow, Tower of Joy and other cities of the Realm. Like so many others he had always thought of wyrms as moving in lock-step like Guards on parade, disciplined as elite soldiers. He now knew that most of the time, those wyrms were controlled by Terrarch sorcerers using leashes, sorcerous adjuncts that allowed their wearer to dominate the beast by force of will.

When under the direction of a mere mahout, a bridgeback’s progress was more like a meandering stroll. They left the track to seek choice morsels from the branches of nearby trees and returned to it only in response to a great deal of prodding, hissing and chanting by their drivers.

Still, for all the maddeningly erratic nature of their progress, they moved very swiftly. The wyrms' long stride ate the ground quicker than guards marching at double step. The foothills of the mountains came closer with alarming speed.

“This is the life,” said Weasel, fumbling in his pocket for a stick of biltong. The Lieutenant was far from their howdah, leading from the front as he always liked to do. With him were the wizard and Vosh. Rik shared the howdah with the Barbarian, Leon, Weasel and several others including the Sergeant. “No marching. No climbing any bloody hills. Just a nice, relaxing excursion into the countryside.”

“You call these hills?” said the Barbarian. “In the Northlands we would call them molehills, just as we would call those things you say are mountains hillocks.”

“Perhaps you would care to get down from the back of the beast and jog along beside us up them, as you were wont to do as a youth back in your rugged homeland?” said Leon in deliberate mockery of the Barbarian’s manner. The pipe had moved to the far left corner of his mouth and bobbed up and down cynically at every word.

“They are not steep enough to give me any exercise.”

“You’ll be getting exercise soon enough when we get where we are going,” said the Sergeant. They all looked at him, suspecting that, as he usually did, he had a better idea of what they were about than the rest of them.

“What do you know, Sergeant?” asked Weasel. “Don’t keep us in the dark. Spill the beans! Who is the little rat up front?”

The Sergeant gave one of his dry chuckles. A look of amusement made his little cheeks pinker and his small eyes even more monkey-like than usual. “You don’t think they have given us the use of their precious wyrms so that we can sample the fresh country air hereabouts, do you?”

“You never know,” said Weasel. "The Exalted may be feeling generous today."

“Why have they given us ten bridgebacks?” Rik asked.

“To get us where we are supposed to go quickly, and it must be some distance away. Ask yourself why they send out a company of Foragers on wyrms into these hills? Ask yourself which direction we are heading?”

“Towards the sun rise,” Rik said. “Towards the border.”

“Nice to see you are awake, Halfbreed,” said the Sergeant.

“You think there is going to be some incident with the Kharadreans?”

“I don’t know, but something big is afoot. Vosh was brought to the Colonel in the wee hours, and the Lieutenant was rousted from his bed along with a few others. Look up ahead now, what do you see?”

Even at this distance Rik could see Sardec was studying a map which he had produced from inside his tunic. The wizard leaned close to his shoulder and seemed to study it with him. The mountain man nodded his head as if in response to some question.

“He’s looking at some sort of scroll,” said the Barbarian. “Is he going to work magic? I never knew the Lieutenant had that in him.”

“It’s a map,” Rik said. “He’s checking where we are going.”

Even as he said this, the Lieutenant leaned forward and said something to his driver. “We’re going a fair ways into the hills, or we would not be on these beasts,” he said.

“You think we might be crossing the border?” Rik said.

“I think we’re going near it.”

“It’s probably bandits though,” Rik said. “Has to be. If it were anything else we would be moving in force.”

“Most likely,” said the Sergeant with as much reluctance as if he suspected something else entirely. Visions of spies and secret missions and all manner of things from the cheapest form of storybooks danced through Rik’s head, but he dismissed them as just too fantastic.

The Foragers discussed the matter in low whispered voices as the wyrms strode ever higher into the pine-covered hills until the shadow of the ancient mountains lay across them and chilled the heat of the sun.

Spring in the mountains was like winter in the valley. Snow still covered the peaks. Sometimes it fell in light flakes driven from the higher valleys, and discomforted the wyrms. Doubtless they would have been worse tempered had they not been so sluggish from the chill.

On the first night, the Foragers made camp in a hollow with the bridgebacks picketed to the trees and set sentries exactly as if they were in enemy territory. The hill-men of these parts had no love for soldiers of any sort, reckoning them all to be tax collectors or spies or thieves. In this they were not always incorrect, Rik supposed.

While they made camp, the wizard set wards, the old rune-covered sort that dated from the arrival of the Elder Race on this world. Rik had plenty of time to witness the weaving of magic as he gathered firewood for the others. Cold hands and a sore back were the price he had to pay today for his missing button and his mixed blood.

When Master Severin spoke the words to activate the ancient runestones a chill ran up Rik’s spine and a shiver passed through his body. He suspected that part of his heritage made him unduly sensitive to the presence of sorcery. It might have been his imagination but it seemed to him that the wizard turned and looked in his direction. The twilight and the mask made it impossible to tell his expression.

Of all of the Foragers, only the Barbarian had grown less miserable as they reached the heights. The colder it got, the happier he looked. The chill air reminded him of the bracing cold of his beloved homeland, although of course, it was not to be compared in any way favourably to it. Rik suspected the Barbarian merely took pleasure in the fact the rest of them were uncomfortable. It provided him with a chance to boast loud and long about the hardihood of his people and, more importantly, himself.

Those not on sentry duty wrapped themselves in their greatcoats, broke out pipes and threw themselves down by the fires. Most chewed tough biltong. Weasel toasted some rock hard bread on the end of his bayonet. They had set fires in hollows in the woods. Rik dumped the last of the branches he had gathered beside the fire and slumped down to rest.

Corporal Toby strode to the fire. Rik looked up at him. From this angle his craggy features and huge body looked even more monumental. “You dropped this,” he said in a voice only slightly less loud than a musket being fired. He handed Rik something and then strode off. Rik looked at the small cold metal object in his palm. It was a tunic button. “Thanks,” he said to the departing back.

He opened his pack and fumbled through it looking for a needle and thread, then, despite the chill, he took off his tunic, wrapped his greatcoat back around him and, by the fire’s flickering light, began to sew.

Leon sat across from him, an odd look on his face as he surveyed their surroundings. He looked out of place and wary, a city boy from Sorrow, the night out of doors in this chill place making him uncomfortable. He caught Rik’s expression and said; “Not like night in the Old Quarter is it?”

“No,” Rik said. “It’s not.”

He was half fearful that Leon was going to allude to their time running wild in that city of thieves, and that the lieutenant would hear. He looked around but the Terrarchs were sitting apart, holding themselves as aloof as always.

“We’re a long way from home, Rik,” Leon said. It had been a long time since Leon had called him by his real name twice in one day, and the fact that he did so just then seemed a measure of his unease.

“We are indeed, Leon.” Rik stressed the name, hoping his old friend would take the hint.

“You think there really are giants and spider devils in these mountains?”

Rik felt the others around the fire shift and give the conversation their attention. He guessed such thoughts were on everybody’s minds. “If there are, I am sure Master Severin can deal with them.”

“How can you be so sure? What makes you such an expert?” asked Pigeon, puffing his chest out and walking splay-footed in the way that had given him his nickname.

“Because he knows,” said Leon. “He has read more books than anyone here, maybe even including Master Severin.”

That claim provoked quiet mirth from those that did not know Rik well. The Sergeant said; “It’s most likely true. Never seen anybody read like our Halfbreed. You’d think he was studying to be a lawyer or a sorcerer or one of those other mysterious things.”

Rik wondered if this was some sort of warning. It was the sort of thing an Inquisitor would like to know about. It also showed something of the Sergeant’s ignorance.

It was not that Rik would not have read a grimoire if he got the chance, it was just that he never would. They were things their owners took a lot of pains to keep out of other people’s hands. Rik could only dream of getting a hold of one someday. The Old Witch had taught him some things during what he laughingly thought of as his apprenticeship to her. She had even claimed he showed more than a trace of the Talent but that was when she had been deep in her cups, and oddly sentimental. That had been before the business with Antonio that had driven Leon and himself to flee the city in the company of Death’s own angels.

“I like to read. What of it? You’ve all been pleased enough to have me read you stories from the chapbooks of an evening.” That too was true. They were all of them fond of a story, those who could not read most of all.

“Where did you learn to read, Halfbreed?” asked Pigeon.

“In Shadzar,” Rik said, using the old name for the Place of Sorrow. “In the Great Bazaar.”

“Bet that was not all you learned,” said somebody from the dark. The fruity voice sounded like it belonged to Handsome Jan. Sorrow did not have a good reputation even among the regiments. They might be the gutter scum of the Realms but even they had to feel superior to something, and that something was the inhabitants of Sorrow.

“Was you a thief?” asked someone else.

“Everybody in the Place of Sorrow is a thief,” said Gunther. “If they are not a whore. It is a vile cesspit of every sort of wickedness.”

There was no sense in denying that. Rik felt a strange nostalgia for the covered courtyards and mazy alleys of his home. At least they were warm. He might still have been there now but he had taken the Queen’s gold crown and gone for a soldier.

Of course, if he had not, after the business with Sabena and the jewels, Antonio and his men would probably have had him hanging from a meat hook and Leon with him. Not even the Old Witch could have saved them, if she had been of a mind to, which she most likely was not. She had gotten strange in the later days, as all human sorcerers were said to eventually.

And Antonio was the most powerful crime boss in the city, rich enough to buy immunity even from the Magistrates. It had probably not been such a good idea to sleep with his mistress, Rik reflected. It had been a worse one to help her steal that magic crystal from Antonio’s strongbox.

“It’s a fun place,” said Weasel, just to be contrary. “I enjoyed our time there.”

“That’s because you fit right in,” said another shadowy figure out in the gloom. Weasel just chuckled as if he could not agree more.

“I knew a Terrarch whore there once…” he continued.

“There’s no such thing,” said one of the chorus.

“There is too, least she looked like one of the Exalted…”

“Means nothing, so does Halfbreed,” said somebody else.

“Maybe it was him in a wig,” said Pigeon.

Weasel chuckled again. “I think I would have noticed and so would your mother, since she was right between us.”

“Weasel’s your daddy, Pigeon,” said somebody and then looked up at the sound of footsteps. The Barbarian approached, bringing the hill-man Vosh. Weasel made a place for him by the fire and offered him some biltong and a swig from his special flask. The stranger took it gratefully. Weasel got right down to business.

“What are you doing here with us, Vosh?”

“It’s bad up here, Weasel,” said the stranger. He had the soft lilting accent of the hills. Rik nodded as his suspicions were confirmed. There was no way the stranger could have known Weasel’s name if they had not met before. The hill-man had been with the Lieutenant and the wizard all day.

“Things are always bad in the hills,” said Weasel.

“It’s been worse since the wizard came.” That quietened them. Nobody liked the thought of a wizard being up there, particularly not if they were going to have to fight against him. Wizards were always bad news.

“Wizard?” said Weasel, and even he looked a little worried.

“Renegade Terrarch. Showed up late last autumn. Whispered something in the Prophet's ear and we all had to obey him without question. He turned the old manor house into a hellhole with his experiments. It was bad enough before he started digging the mine. After that…”

“Sounds bad,” said Weasel softly. No one else dared say anything at all. “Mine? Was there gold there?”

“We never saw any. It’s in a cursed unholy site too, near the ruins of Achenar, the old city of the Spider King.”

“What’s this wizard wanting? Why come to the bloody mountains for the middle of winter?”

“Don’t ask me, but it’s no good he’s been up to. He takes people down into the mine and they don’t come back up. At first it was strangers, but then it was our own — people the wizard said were going to betray us. The Prophet agreed. Of course he would, being more than half a wizard himself.”

“I can see where this is going,” said Weasel. “One night he started looking at you slantwise. So you decided that you would run to the Terrarchs and tell them the whole tale.”

“Better that than madmen loose in the mountains, raising ghosts and demons and god knows what else. It's one thing to preach war with the Terrarchs. It's another to start summoning the spawn of the Old Gods to help you. You lowlanders might not remember the old days but we hill-men have long memories…”

“Long memories of the time when you worshipped the scuttling hell-spawned soul-eating bastards,” muttered the Barbarian.

Weasel kept talking. “And the Exalted have promised you sanctuary because among the clans, no matter what the reason, a man who sells out is an enemy. It’s a good way to end up with your own severed dick in your mouth.”

The stranger looked ashamed and defiant. “You would have done the same,” he said.

“Aye, most likely. These wizards have names?”

“Alzibar. He’s a big friend of Zarahel…”

“Zarahel? The Prophet who has been stirring up the tribes?” said Rik.

Vosh nodded. “Thinks he’s the Liberator. Claims the Old Gods are coming back. Claims the old days will return. That the Terrarchs will fall.”

Rik shivered. No one present wanted to think about that. It was one thing to resent the Terrarchs but to have the Demon Gods rise from their graves, to have the old powers of darkness unbound and stalking the land, those were bad thoughts. Even if only a tenth of the things they had been taught about them were true, those were very bad thoughts.

He felt suddenly sure he had stumbled across the secret of their mission. They had been spun a story about the bandits, in case of spies in the camp. He knew what they were really after.

“And we are just kind of heading towards the exact valley where the Prophet and his brother wizard have their camp,” Rik said. Weasel nodded understanding, so did Leon and the Sergeant and a few others. “I wonder why that would be.”

As he spoke Rik noticed a strange silence had fallen over the group. He felt a cold presence over his shoulder and turned to find himself looking up at the silver mask of Master Severin. Its surface reflected the flames of the fire so that it looked like the whole top of the Terrarch’s head was ablaze. It gave him an even more demonic look than usual. His cold eyes gazed down, and Rik felt a momentary dizziness, and the oddest sensation that the wizard was looking deep into his soul. It was not a pleasant feeling.

Severin’s presence cast a pall over everybody. They said nothing, merely sat there like birds hypnotised by a snake. Rik thought the wizard was going to say something but he did not. He merely stared coldly, letting his wintery gaze fall on them, then he beckoned to the hill-man with one gauntleted finger and then strode silently back into the shadows from which he had emerged. The hill-man followed meek as a lamb to the slaughter.

Rik finished sewing the button on his tunic. There was no more conversation that evening.

Chapter Three

The wind blew chill from the moment the Foragers broke camp. The fir trees grew more stunted as the bridgebacks carried them higher. Clouds scudded swiftly across the sky, sometimes obscuring the peaks, sometimes rewarding Rik with glimpses of the sun breaking through a gap.

The soldiers dug out scarves, mufflers and old fingerless gloves and those who had them donned extra waistcoats and shirts. The Terrarchs showed no sign of feeling the cold. Rik wondered if this was some proof of the theory that they did not feel pain in the same way as men do.

As he huddled down in the howdah miserably watching the small icicles of snot forming on the end of Weasel’s nose, Rik brooded on the events of the previous night. Had it simply been his imagination or had the mage showed a particular interest in him? It was forbidden for any human to study the art of sorcery, and Rik had done a little of that, snatching the few crumbs of lore the Old Witch had let fall. Maybe the Terrarch had some way of telling.

If that was the case why not just drag him off and interrogate him? The Terrarchs had been known to do such things despite all the laws that the House Inferior had passed against it. Rik suspected that they only paid attention to the human part of the legislature when it suited their purposes. Everybody knew that the House Superior and the Amber Throne were where real power lay, and that their hand-picked human representatives were there merely to rubber stamp their decisions.

Wizards had even less respect than the rest of the Terrarchs for the rights of men. Most of them behaved as if the Small Revolution had never happened, and it was still the bad old days when humans had no rights at all. Rik took it for granted that most Terrarch wizards would have happily gone over to the Dark Empire but were just too proud to change sides.

Still, things were changing. Having any representatives at all was a step forward. The new human mercantile class was feeling its strength. A century ago General Koth had shown that a human army with guns could cause the Terrarchs problems, even with their dragons and their sorcerous powers. Everybody knew that was the real reason the Queen and her Council of Lords had to grant humans those concessions.

A chill passed through him; things might easily swing the other way. They had in Sardea. That was not something any man wanted to consider. It galled him to admit that there might be worse things in this world than Sardec and his ilk, but there were. At least the Scarlet nations acknowledged that humans were entitled to some rights. The Purples would have them all as slaves again, indentured forever on their vast estates and palaces, subject completely to the whims of their masters. In Sardea, if a Terrarch wanted to kill one of his humans, put him to death by torture even, he could and with no other reason than he felt like doing so. His humans were his property, to do with as he would.

Rik pushed those thoughts aside and returned to the things the hill-man, Vosh, had said. All the talk about a haunted mine, and murderous sorcerers and the presence of the Prophet was disconcerting to say the least. It was clear now why Master Severin had come along, when usually the mages never left camp for anything less than a war or a long holiday. This was magician’s business. He was there to shield them from sorcery and doubtless plunder the lore-books of the wizard when they found him.

The rest of the squad looked no happier than Rik felt. The men on watch needed to keep their heads poking over the side of the howdah and into the cutting wind. The chill was like a sword-cut as Rik discovered when his turn came and Weasel slumped down gratefully and took a swig from his hidden brandy flask. Much to Rik’s surprise, for Weasel was not known for his generosity, the poacher offered it to him.

“You’ll need it,” Weasel said and grinned. For some reason he had always been good to Rik and Leon. It was he who pulled strings with the Sergeant Major to get the pair transferred from the line infantry to the Foragers. Rik guessed it was because he liked having a couple of Sorrow-trained thieves within easy reach. He and Leon had done some housebreaking and pocket-picking at Weasel’s instigation. It had been profitable for all three, but, Rik suspected, for Weasel most of all.

Rik let the burning liquid slide down his throat. It was surprisingly good, smooth and rich, and he immediately had a suspicion where it came from. Weasel had been raiding the colonel’s private stock again, and he had just involved him in his crime. A subtle bastard Weasel was, for all his country poacher’s manners.

He was right though. Rik did need it. The wind was bitter and that was not the worst of it. They were high up on the side of the mountains, moving along a narrow path between the trees, the rock-strewn slope descending steeply to their right. No wagon could have negotiated that narrow way, but the bridgebacks, larger and heavier by far, picked their way along with steps of surprising delicacy. Rik supposed the huge beasts were not any keener than he was to go tumbling down the mountainside, which was reassuring in its way. If they did, those in the howdahs would have been swiftly crushed beneath their weight.

The wind brought tears to his eyes till he was crying like a drunken whore at a low melodrama. Snow drifted down, forcing him to squint, burning on his cheeks, melting on his tongue when he left his mouth open for a second. The path was shadowed and wound around the hills so that part of the line of wyrms was always out of sight.

There was plenty of heather at this height and plenty of big boulders to hide behind. The hill-men were famed for their ambushes. Had the Foragers been afoot they would have matched them, for skirmishing and sneaking was a Forager’s trade, but mounted on these high beasts they were just nice juicy targets.

Rik wondered how well the side of the howdah would stop a musket ball. The flesh of his back crawled as he imagined eyes measuring it as a resting place for a bullet. Too much imagination had always been his curse.

Rik kept a wary eye out for Master Severin but the wizard had shown no further interest, even as they broke camp.

What would it be like to study the deep dark mysteries Severin had been initiated into? He would never know. The laws were strict; only pure-blooded Terrarchs were allowed to pursue the Art. Supposedly only they could study the dark secrets of magic without risking body and soul.

Not that Rik gave a toss about the law. All of his life it had been used to oppress him, and it had once seemed to him that in the Art lay a way of gaining some power over his life, a power that he had never possessed and supposed he never would. Dark as the path of the mage was, — and it was very dark, for madness, degeneration and vice seemed to lie along its entire length, at least for humans — it had always seemed the only real road to wealth and power open to the likes of him.

Despite all the laws and the Inquisition, there were, and always had been, human wizards, and their services commanded a high price. He regretted not learning more from the Old Witch when he had the chance.

By such lures does the Shadow seek to entrap our souls, Rik thought, remembering the words of the priests at the orphanage and shivering, not just with the cold.

He had seen what became of some human wizards before they were taken off to bedlam or the burning stake. He knew the warnings against magic were not simply propaganda put about by the Terrarchs but the simple truth, and yet he was still drawn to the Art.

Enough primitive faith had been beaten into him by the priests at the orphanage to make him fear for his soul because of it. What use was mere earthly power when your immortal soul was in peril? Ah, but what if the secret of terrestrial immortality was in your hands, the wicked part of him countered? What then? Guilt stabbed him and he knew it was this guilt that made him so nervous around the Magister.

He caught sight of movement out of the corner of his eye. He gripped his rifle tight as he surveyed his surroundings. It was more for reassurance than because he had any great faith in his marksmanship from atop this moving platform. His plan was to duck first and respond later if he caught sight of any would-be sniper. Better a live coward than a dead hero. He would leave the musketry to better shots like Weasel and Leon.

“What is it?” Handsome Jan asked, glancing up from the shard of mirror in which he had been admiring his noble profile. The others held their weapons ready.

Rik saw nothing even as he scanned the undergrowth and jutting rocks. He did his best to ignore the vistas of dizzying drops that were sometimes revealed. It came to him that they must be running parallel to Broken Tooth Pass and that it was even possible that they had crossed the border into Kharadrea. No shots came. The moment of fear departed, leaving only a small residue burning in the pit of his stomach.

“Nothing,” Rik said. “I thought I saw something, but it was nothing.”

The others slumped back against the howdah walls.

They passed a number of small ruined buildings. Some seemed almost like outcrops of stone. Only when he looked closely could he see that the moss-covered blocks had been dressed and shaped. Nonetheless, had they been roofed over they would have been inhabitable, if anyone could have faced the bleak prospect of living in these mountains.

Rik wondered aloud why some poor crofters had not taken them. He had caught enough glimpses of wild sheep and goats on the hillsides to know a living could be eked out here by someone hardy enough.

“Shows what you know,” said Weasel, spitting over the side of the howdah.

“Something you want to tell me, Weasel,” Rik said.

“It’s the feuds. When clans up here feel they have a grudge, they get together and burn out their neighbours.”

That would explain the old scorch marks on the ruins, Rik supposed. Weasel was in full flow now: “And of course when the burned out’s kin find out, they retaliate. And that leads to more burning, and more retaliation, till pretty soon everybody hates everybody else. That’s why there’s so many ruins. A man could make a fortune selling powder and ammunition up here.”

“Is that what you and the Quartermaster been up to then? I was wondering.”

“Hush, lad,” said Weasel. His grin looked a little pained.

“You’d think life would be hard enough up here without them making it harder,” said Leon. He chewed his empty pipe a bit more intently to aid his thoughts. A look of child-like seriousness passed over his face as he concentrated.

“You call this hard,” said the Barbarian. “You have never been to the Northlands of Segard.”

“It’s been my experience that people can always find a way to make things more difficult for themselves,” said the Sergeant.

“Godless heathens,” added Gunther with some venom.

“It’s endless war up here,” said Weasel, not without a certain gloomy satisfaction. “There’s only two things as can make the clans forget their feuds and band together.”

“And what would they be?” asked Pigeon, rather foolishly, Rik thought.

“Banditry. They like to get together and raid the caravans in the pass, and the farmers in the valleys.”

“And don’t we get blamed for enough of that,” said the Barbarian, somewhat too sourly for a man who had done his fair share of rustling. Weasel sucked his teeth and nodded his agreement.

“Lawless heathens,” said Gunther.

“They’re actually pretty god-fearing,” said Weasel, just to be argumentative. “One of the clans, the Malarceans even gave shelter to a Prophet of the Light. That’s how they got the name. They took his…”

“And look how they have disgraced it since…”

“What would be the other thing that unites these wild hill-men?” asked the sergeant, asking the question to change the subject and forestall an argument.

“The sight of a whole bunch of the Queen’s soldiers parading through their land.”

“It’s the Queen’s land,” said Gunther.

“At least as much of it as is on her side of the border,” Rik said, giving his attention back to their surroundings. He had already known the hill-men could be hostile, but Weasel had given his fears expression and put his nerves on edge.

“You will get no argument from me,” said Weasel. “The problem is they think we’re tax collectors or from the Estates.”

It had not been unknown for the Terrarchs to use their military connections to get the army to clear humans off freehold land they coveted. Such a thing had not happened since the Small Revolution, as the laws passed then had given humans some rights to their property, but the hill-men had long memories and little education. Rik could not see them reading any of the broadsheets.

“Who would want this land?” said the Sergeant mockingly.

“Sheep,” said Weasel.

“I don’t think our Exalted lords and masters would take kindly to hearing themselves described as such,” said Leon.

“I meant they would put sheep on the land. Textiles is big business, especially now. Who makes all our pretty uniforms? Who gets the profit of it? Remember — there is a war coming.”

“The Exalted are not to be compared to money grubbing human merchants,” said Gunther.

“Strange that for people who care nothing about money they should have so much of it,” said Weasel. "Maybe that's the secret."

“You talk like an Insurrectionary,” said Gunther.

“Not at all. I am merely making an observation. God knows I’ve put down enough revolutionists in my time.”

All of which was true, but Rik could not help but think Weasel had a sneaking sympathy for the revolutionaries. They all did. Most men wondered what it would be like to be masters of their own world once more. Surely the Dark Ages before the Terrarchs came had been terrible, at least according to the Terrarchs, but men had been free.

Rik shook his head at that folly. They had not been free. They had merely bowed their heads before different and darker gods. And there had been rulers then too, priests and kings. There would always be rulers and ruled, rich and poor. There always had been. There always would.

It is the way of the world, he thought. God likes order. He likes hierarchy. Only fools believed the Liberator would come and that men would be free. But there had been progress, another part of him argued. The Schism had ended most forms of serfdom in the Scarlet Realms. Men did have a voice in the councils of the great, albeit not a very loud one. The Queen had guaranteed the property rights of humans. Some humans had even become rich working in trade. Lickspittles and toadies, the lot of them, he thought sourly.

The signal to halt interrupted his reverie. The wyrms stopped. It seemed like they had arrived wherever they were supposed to go.

They stood to attention in the watery late afternoon sunlight and waited for the Lieutenant to explain the plan.

“Now, men,” Sardec said. Again, he made the word sound like it was the worst possible insult. “We have business.”

A bridgeback gave out a rumbling belch. Sardec glared at it as if he was going to order the beast flogged. Nobody laughed. The Lieutenant walked up and down the line, his hands behind his back. He paused in front of Rik and looked almost disappointed to see all the requisite buttons present on his tunic. The wizard looked on behind Sardec, his silver-masked head cocked to one side, conveying an air of patronising amusement.

Vosh, the mountain man, looked nervous as Rik supposed he had every reason to be. He would have a whole lot of upset kinfolk down on him if he were spotted with the Terrarch’s soldiery.

The Foragers were keen to hear exactly why they had been dragged up these God-benighted, freezing mountains. They were even keener to know when they would get the business over and get out again.

“We know bandits have based themselves up here. We know they have eluded you for some time,” Sardec said. That you was a nice touch, Rik thought. It showed that their Terrarch leaders had nothing to do with the failures of mere humans. It told them that things were going to go differently now one of the Lords of Creation had taken a hand. “We know also they have made a pact with a sorcerer of the darkest type.”

He paused to give that time to sink in. Rik saw several men go pale and not a few shudder. Everybody made the Elder Sign against evil with their right hand. He looked at their own wizard’s impassive, partially masked face. Fight magic with magic was one of the oldest rules of warfare.

It certainly explained why scryers could never find the Prophet’s men. If they had a wizard shielding them, they would not be easy to view. Of course, that begged several other questions. For instance, what was a mage doing in this god forsaken place, and why had he aligned himself with the local riffraff?

Any wizard competent enough to thwart a Magister’s scrying could surely find service with someone willing to pay. Unless, of course, he was one of those so mad or so dark that no one else would have him. That would make him an outstanding specimen of depravity.

“Take him alive if you can,” said Severin, speaking for the first time. His voice was surprisingly deep and musical when he addressed a crowd.

“That might be easier said than done, master,” said the Sergeant.

“It will not be. I shall overpower his defences and leave him paralysed. All you need do is slay or drive off his guardians and claim the body.”

“How will we tell which one he is, master?” The Sergeant asked. It was a not unreasonable question.

“He will be the only Terrarch present barring the Lieutenant and myself. I trust identifying such a one should provide no insuperable difficulties.”

Supercilious twat, Rik thought, but the more subservient types chuckled fawningly. There were always plenty of those in the army, even in the Foragers.

“Alive if you can, dead if you must,” Master Severin said.

The Lieutenant looked on, not a little displeased at having his place at the centre of attention so summarily usurped and decided that the time had come to exert his control of matters once more.

“The bandits are camped out down in the valley. They have occupied a ruined manor house; its walls are thick but holed in several places and hopefully they too should provide no insuperable difficulties.”

Rik was impressed by his confidence. If he ran true to form Sardec would lead from the front. Personally Rik didn’t fancy charging a fortified position in the teeth of mountain marksmen.

“The moon will be out this evening,” said the Lieutenant. “We shall commence the assault once it is full dark. Anything to add, Master Severin?”

The wizard nodded. “Make sure that you are all wearing your Elder Signs. Do not get too close to the mansion house until after the signal to attack is given. Tonight the Crimson Shadows will descend on our enemies.”

Men muttered to themselves. It looked like very powerful sorcery was going to be unleashed. Master Severin raised his hands for quiet.

“Do not worry. There will still be work for you. We want some prisoners taken for interrogation, and it is quite likely the sorcerer and any bodyguards he might have will be protected against my magic.”

“Thank the Light for that,” muttered Weasel. “I mean we would not want our lives to be too easy now, would we?”

At least Sardec had given matters that much thought, to give him credit. Their arrival had obviously been timed with this plan in mind. Perhaps he was more competent than Rik had thought, or perhaps the whole plan had been thought up by someone else.

“Any questions, men?” Sardec asked.

“How many enemy, sir?” asked Sergeant Hef.

"About forty tribesmen. The so-called Prophet’s band.”

“The Prophet, sir? Zarahel?” Hef asked.

“Zarahel, indeed. The preacher of the resurrection of the Old Gods. Don’t worry Sergeant. I know there is a price on his head. Your men shall all share the prize money.”

Again, that sneering tone of voice, Rik thought. Sardec was, of course, above such considerations or affected to be. The majority of the prize would find its way into his pocket anyway. Officers took the lion’s share of such cash. It recompensed them for the price of their commissions.

“What about the wizard, sir?” asked Weasel. “Any bounty on him?”

There usually were bounties on dark sorcerers. The temple offered them and many wealthy private individuals contributed to this worthy cause. Dark magic was feared by everybody, particularly by those who had most to lose.

“I will authorise payment to each of the men who take him of a gold crown from my own personal funds, in addition to the usual state bounty” said Master Severin. "Double if you take him alive. Lieutenant Sardec is my witness."

That got a few mutters of approval. A man could stay drunk for a month on a crown.

“Something against him, eh master?” said Weasel. The wizard merely stared at him coldly.

“That is none of your business,” he said. From his tone Rik suspected that things might go ill for Weasel once the dark mage was caught. Weasel probably did too, but no sign of it showed on his face.

“You’re right, sir, beg your pardon, sir; I let my enthusiasm for the task at hand carry my tongue away.”

Sardec reasserted command. “Sergeant Hef, take your squad and begin to scout the entrance to the valley while there is yet light. Corporal Toby, accompany the Sergeant with your squad. Do not stray too far from the ridge-line. We do not want to trip any wards there might be, do we?”

Both men nodded and gestured for their men to fall in. It seemed that battle would soon be upon them.

Chapter Four

Rik threw himself flat alongside the others just before they reached the brow of the hill and made his way forward on hands and knees. He knew a man is never more visible than when on a ridge-line, particularly with the sun behind him. He was taking no chances of being spotted.

He looked down into a long valley, flanked on either side by peaks. A waterfall at the far end fed into a large lake. Around the lake were a number of tumbled down buildings. The lake had once been smaller for the ruins of many towers protruded above its surface now. Clearly there had been a city here a long time ago.

“Achenar,” said Weasel. “Not a good place.”

These were the ruins of the ancient city of the Spider God, destroyed by the Terrarchs during their wars of conquest. This was the home of the demon Uran Ultar, reviled in legend, a place whose name was still a byword for horror, almost eight centuries after its destruction.

“I wish they had told us we were coming here,” said the Barbarian.

“Stayed at home, would you?” asked Sergeant Hef.

“No. But I would have brought some truesilver bullets.”

“It’s just a bunch of ruins,” said Leon.

“The hill-tribes avoid this place,” said Weasel. “Can’t say as I blame them.”

“I thought it was one of their sacred sites,” said Hef.

“It’s both, I suppose. A lot of them still revere Uran Ultar, in secret of course.”

“Heathens,” said Gunther. Rik studied the ruins in the fading light. He did not like this place at all and it was not just its fearsome reputation stimulating his imagination. There was something about it that made his flesh creep.

“This Zarahel has the right idea,” said Hef. “I doubt if any of the tribes are going to fight him for this place.”

“What could a wizard be looking for down there?” Leon asked. “One thing’s for sure, he did not come here by accident. Why dig a mine here?”

“They say Uran Ultar’s priests filled his temples with gold taken in tribute from conquered nations,” Rik replied. “Maybe he left something buried down there.”

“Nah,” said Weasel. “The Terrarchs would have grabbed the lot of it. You know what they are like. Greedy bastards, the lot of them.”

“It’s not for us to criticise our betters,” said Gunther. “You in particular.”

“If I don’t, no one will.”

“I think there’s more going on here than meets the eye,” said Rik. “We’ve got a company of Foragers and a wizard up here. It’s for a reason.”

“The reason is to grab this wizard and kill the Prophet and have the whole business wrapped up before Mourning Time,” said Sergeant Hef.

“I still think they are up to something. What about this mine that Vosh was on about? All those folk disappearing? What’s all that about then?” Rik asked.

“Who knows with wizards?” said the Sergeant. “Our job is to put a stop to it whatever it is and we’d best be getting started.”

“Speaking of wizards, what’s this about the Crimson Shadows?”

“If it makes our job easier, why complain? Ah there’s what we’re looking for.”

On the shoreline, on a slight rocky rise close to the falls, stood a squat fortified manor, partially ruined. A tower stood at one corner, and at its top a bell glittered. In some pens nearby were lots of the lean mountain sheep. Nobody was visible, but columns of smoke rose from the chimneys.

“Sentry in the tower,” said Weasel. Looking closely Rik could see what he meant. A man’s head was visible over the parapet. He was holding a rifle too. The bandits were not being entirely negligent about their safety. “Might be some more holed up in the ruins as well.”

“I can’t see any,” said the Sergeant.

“Nor can I,” said Weasel, “but you can bet your last farthing they are there.”

“Take care of them then,” said the Sergeant. “You and the Barbarian. Don’t get close enough to trigger any wards”

“I don’t like the look of those ruins,” said the Barbarian.

“Scared the Spider God might get you?” asked Weasel. “Old Uran Ultar has been in his grave this last thousand years.”

Rik wished Weasel would shut up. What was a thousand years to a god? And could gods die the way ordinary mortals did? Maybe he was just asleep. There was something about those ruins that made him deeply uneasy, a part of him responded fearfully just to the sight of them.

“I am scared of nothing,” said the Barbarian. “I am just saying I don’t like the look of the place.”

Weasel touched the hilt of his knife and grinned. The Barbarian’s fingers whitened as he clutched the hilt of his sword.

“Do it quietly,” added the Sergeant, with particular emphasis.

“You don’t need to tell us that, Sergeant,” said Weasel with his throat-slitter’s grin. “We knows what we are about, we do.”

“Wizard said don’t get too close,” said Gunther.

“When was the last time you heard of wards set so far from a camp,” said Weasel.

“Always a first time,” said the Sergeant. “Carefully does it.”

Weasel and the Barbarian nodded and vanished over the ridge top.

After sundown, squads began to filter through the ruins, taking up position for the attack. Since his night sight was better than most men’s, Rik had the job of moving from position to position to make sure everyone was in place, and all the ways out of the trap were closed. Most of the Foragers were in small groups, one man watching while the others dozed. Being Foragers they were well used to sleeping anywhere, but it took real talent to do so with the wind cutting through you, and the prospect of violence in the air.

Finally he made it to where Weasel and the Barbarian lurked on the furthest side, towards the waterfall. There were spots of blood on their ragged green tunics. They had encountered a few hill-men in the ruins on their scouting foray. Leon and Pigeon and the Sergeant were with them. Rik gave the password as he approached since there was no sense in getting his throat cut by nervous men. Weasel has always been too good with that damn knife.

“Where’s this bloody mine then?” asked Weasel of no one in particular. “I think we should make that little bastard Vosh show us where it is? Might be gold there.”

“He said it was haunted,” said Pigeon. Weasel said nothing, nor did the others. The thought of what might wait in a haunted mine frightened them all. It was difficult to avoid dark thoughts in the doom-haunted ruins of old Achenar.

No lights showed. No one did anything to give their positions away. They waited for the attack to begin.

Lieutenant Sardec watched as the wizard continued his chant and drew his wand through the air, pointing to the five points of the astrological compass and invoking the names of entities that were not good to hear.

When would something happen? It had been almost an hour now since the ritual had begun, and each minute that passed increased the chance of something going wrong down below, of one of the Foragers doing something more than usually stupid, of one of the men being spotted. The wizard just kept to the ritual, moving with no sign of feeling any pressure to hurry.

Sardec envied Severin his gift. In his House, power had always flowed through the female side of the line. Even in these sadly diminished days, his family had still produced several sorcerers of note. At least if he were a sorcerer he would get some respect. No one respected a junior officer of a mere thirty years. Even his fellow Exalted still treated him as little more than a child.

He supposed to most of his kin he was a mere stripling. Most Terrarchs regarded anyone who had seen less than a hundred winters as dreadfully immature. It takes a century to educate a Terrarch was an old saying.

There were times when he suspected that was just another of the games his people played. With age came status, and with status came power. Those who held power did their best to hang onto it, and to remind those who were below them in the pecking order what their true place in it was.

And his place, despite his family connections and his immaculate blood-line, was at the very bottom of the heap. And he would stay there for a very long time, unless he did something to distinguish himself, as his father had seven hundred years ago when he had saved the life of Lord High Commander Azaar at the Ford of Three Wands during the final stages of the Conquest.

He just wished he were not so conspicuous. Few true-blooded children were born to the Exalted at the best of times, and these were not the best of times. The Terrarchs had always been a slow breeding race unlike the accursed humans. In recent centuries, for reasons no one could quite understand, there had been more of those abominable miscegenations like that insolent half-breed in his own unit…

Smoke started to drift upwards from the flask. It was a brownish red. At first it looked like glittering motes of dust, and then these lost their sparkle and congealed into something thicker and ruddier. The redness took form, becoming strips thin as paper and roughly the shape of great bodiless bats. They writhed around each other and flowed around the inside of the magic circle, like lions confined within a cage.

Slowly the shadows took on greater substance, as if borrowing weight and mass from somewhere, becoming less translucent, and more energetic.

“Crimson Shadows,” Corporal Toby muttered. There was something like awe in his voice. Sardec shivered. He had heard his father’s tales of seeing these things unleashed. His mouth went dry. A strange exaltation filled him. He was witnessing something extraordinary, seeing one of the most ancient weapons of his people actually used. These were a direct manifestation of the sorcery that had chained humanity and sealed Terrarch supremacy for almost a thousand years.

The shadows swelled, billowing like sails as Severin’s chant lent them more substance. They drew strength from it and from him. The words droned on and on, and the shadows swirled ever higher like smoke drifting up a chimney. The scraps of matter split and split again, becoming thinner, more elongated and they soared higher and higher, like kites. A swarm of the Crimson Shadows swirled within a great invisible tube.

A crackling buzz filled the air. It sounded almost like a voice. Master Severin responded to it in an alien language which seemed somehow familiar. Sardec could sense another presence, something alien, inimical and hungry; a presence constrained by the circles and the will of the sorcerer. He knew that had the wizard not been there, the thing would be reaching for him and his men even now, and there would be very little they could do to stop it.

The great wyrms lashed their tails nervously and it took all the efforts of their mahouts to keep them calm. Sardec had his sword out. The old runes shimmered along the surface, evidence of eddy currents of magic.

His skin crawled as he listened to that great buzzing voice. It echoed deep within his bones. He could almost make sense of its words, although he knew that would not be a good thing for his soul. Even the least devout of the Foragers were making elder signs over their breasts now. Some muttered prayers to the Saints and Prophets to intercede with the Light on their behalf.

Finally, just when he thought he could take no more of it, the parlay ended. Severin and the Master of the Crimson Shadows had come to some agreement. The mage gestured and the vast invisible cage hemming the Shadows in receded into the ground. From the top, like a plume of smoke dispersing in a sudden wind, the Shadows drifted towards the valley, becoming ever more numerous as they writhed and split and flapped across the darkening sky.

They encountered some resistance as they neared the lake. Wards of some sort, he guessed. They swarmed against an invisible barrier which it seemed they could not cross. Sardec held his breath. There were certain sorceries that could rebound on their casters if they were baulked. Master Severin chanted another spell, and the invisible barrier collapsed, a weak dam giving way before an irresistible tide. The Shadows flowed forward once more and descended on the ruined mansion and its inhabitants in a flood. The walls were obscured.

With his far-better than human night sight Rik watched the cloud of Shadows descend on the mansion. He could see the scraps of crimson flow around individuals, wrapping them like a shroud. Chilling, terrified screams rang out. One man leapt from the roof, arms windmilling as he sought a cleaner death. His fall seemed somehow slower than normal, as if gravity’s pull were not quite as intense as usual.

Rik fought down an urge to cover his ears. There was something hopeless, lost, crazed about the shrieks of the highlanders. Their death was an unclean one. Hatred for the Terrarchs who had brought it about surged through his mind. It warred with the wariness in him. Here was evidence of the overwhelming power of the Terrarchs. This was his first real sighting of the mailed fist that was normally covered. Here was the reason why mankind lay beneath the Terrarch heel even after a thousand years, and most likely still would be after a thousand more.

The Shadows entered the building, flowing down chimneys, through openings in the roof, skimming down the side of the structure and sliding through gaps in wooden shutters. Moments later the screaming began again. It went on for minutes that seemed as long as hours.

Eventually the screaming died away. The bodies stopped moving. Slowly, much more slowly than they had advanced, the Crimson Shadows rose from the mansion and flapped back towards the ridge-line. There was something in their appearance that suggested an obscene satiation, as if they were bloated by the life force they had devoured. Rik felt a moment of pure terror as they approached. Several of the Foragers would have turned and fled had not Sergeant Hef ordered them to halt in a voice that brooked no disobedience.

It was with some relief that Sardec saw the Shadows flapping downwards, returning to the silver flask. One by one, they dropped within it and when the last one had finally squeezed in Severin spoke some words and restored the stopper to the flask. The ancient horror was safely penned once more. The wizard slumped to his knees, looking weary as an old man, and with a grimace of partially concealed guilt and an even more furtive pleasure etched onto the features visible beneath his half-face mask.

Severin stiffened and then began to shake as if stricken by palsy. From his twisted features it was obvious that he was making a dreadful effort to speak; “There were difficulties. Resistance far greater than I expected. Go ahead! I will join you when I can.”

Even as he spoke, he slumped forward and fell through the sides of his mystical circle. Sparks flickered around his form but nothing worse appeared to be happening. Sardec cursed and strode forward to pull the body clear, confident that his truesilver blade would protect him from the worst. He checked the wizard’s breathing and pulse. Good, he was still alive.

But what now, Sardec wondered? What was it that Severin had warned about? Was this some sort of trap? Should he order the attack to go ahead? He decided he should get into the fray as swiftly as possible. He felt confident that his blade would prove more potent than any sorcerer’s spells.

Should he leave a covering force here? No. There was no immediate threat here and every man might be needed down below.

“You two, look after Master Severin,” he ordered a couple of the soldiers. “Corporal Toby, fire the signal flare! The rest of you mount the wyrms. We are going to capture a wizard for the Inquisition.”

The flare blazed skyward. The bridgebacks got ready to move.

When the flare burst overhead, Rik sprang to his feet along with the Sergeant and half a dozen of the lads. They raced forward, rifles ready, straight for the nearest door. All around them, in the diminishing light of the rocket’s glare he could see others doing the same. Every second he expected a shot to bury itself in his body.

The distance across the open ground seemed enormous. He felt like he was making no progress and every limb moved with the slowness of treacle running down the side of a stone jar.

He was all too aware of what could go wrong, of all the accidents and mischances that might befall him. Friends might make a mistake. Guns could go off accidentally. Bayonets had accidentally lodged in someone’s back during a charge. At least the men who did it claimed it was an accident but who could tell; old scores sometimes got settled.

A man staggered up into the tower. Astonishingly it looked like there were still people alive in the mansion. Rik saw him begin to turn and look in his direction. He could not believe how slow the sentry’s movements were. He knew it was only his own heightened state of awareness, but still it was so remarkable that he laughed. The man was obviously confused. He leaned forward as if to get a better view of what was going on.

Rik raised his rifle to his shoulder and fired at him. Sparks flickered from flint. The rifle butt kicked against his shoulder. Acrid smoke made his eyes water. He hit his mark more by luck than judgement. The sentry slumped backwards out of sight.

Others began firing, most likely shooting at shadows, but that’s what happened once the madness started. Rik saw several faces he recognised, illuminated by muzzle flash and then obscured by the billowing of powder smoke. Some Foragers kneeled to begin reloading. At least he thought that was why they had done it. There’s always some who don’t want to be the first into the breach. He did not bother to reload but fixed his bayonet, jamming it on the end of the rifle.

The lads started howling like an army of devils as they reached the walls. Ahead of him, the Sergeant ordered one of them to open the door. It was locked. Somebody with some presence of mind shot out the lock and kicked the door in.

Rik caught a brief glimpse of a long shadowy corridor. The Sergeant produced a bulls-eye lantern and went in. He was brave. A man with the lantern was always the easiest target.

Everybody else hung back. The Sergeant stopped, looked back at Rik and gestured for him to go forward.

“Lieutenant Sardec picked you to lead the assault,” he said, not without sympathy.

There was no helping it. Everyone knew about Rik’s night sight. He went in first, bayonet at the ready. That was all it took, the rest of them swarmed in behind him.

Wonderful, Rik thought, knowing he would be the first to stop a musket ball when the defenders opened fire. Maybe he would get the chance to die a hero's death.

It was another thing he had Lieutenant Sardec to thank for.

Chapter Five

Rik ran along the corridor, expecting at any moment to feel a musket ball blast through his flesh. Dead bodies sprawled everywhere, their flesh stained a strange vivid crimson.

He kicked a door. It crashed open. Scared and panicked hill-men filled the room. They had long beards and drooping greasy moustaches and were garbed in sheepskin jackets and plaid trews. All of them bore a family resemblance. There was a strange inbred look to the lot of them that Rik found disturbing. Some bore tattoos with spider patterns on their faces and arms; others had webs inked on their flesh. Maybe they had something to do with the fact that the Crimson Shadows had missed this room.

Several of them held weapons. One of them raised a pistol to fire.

Rik charged forward spearing the would-be shooter on his bayonet. The blade pierced flesh and scraped against the stone wall as it passed right through the body. The hill-man screamed. His limbs thrashed. Rik drew his bayonet free and slashed the throat of another man as he reached for the fallen pistol. Blood gushed forth, covering the man’s sheepskin jacket.

“Wait! I surrender! Don’t kill me,” someone shrieked. “Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!”

Rik lunged at him, cutting his face with the bayonet. All was madness and confusion. The smell of blood and faeces filled the air. Screams and the thunder of musketry in a confined space echoed through the building.

Although it has been cold outside, Rik felt unaccountably warm. He stabbed at another man who grabbed the barrel of his rifle and tried to twist it from his grip. Rik wrestled with him. He had time to notice the man’s scarred face, and the great veins standing in his neck before the Barbarian passed his big knife through the body, and the hill-man dropped to the ground, gurgling and taking Rik’s rifle with him.

The press of the melee forced him away from the rifle. He drew one of his own pistols and unloaded it into the face of a man charging at him. He saw bits of bone and brain fly everywhere for an instant then a cloud of acrid smoke enveloped the scene. He flipped the pistol into the air, caught it by the still warm barrel and used it to club the nearest hill-man.

A few heartbeats later the room was cleared. The only foes present were the dead and wounded. Already Weasel and the Barbarian, with their usual presence of mind, were stripping the corpses of anything valuable, stuffing pouches into their britches for later inspection, grabbing any weapons that looked serviceable.

The rest of the squad began to do the same. Rik reclaimed his rifle from Pigeon who seemed inclined to call it the spoils of war, until Rik pointed to his mark carved into the butt. The Sergeant watched the operation with an eagle eye. He would claim his share later. Not even Weasel and the Barbarian would try and cheat him.

Rik cursed because he was too late to stake any claim. The bloodlust and the fear had gotten to him. Hopefully, he thought, there would be more. The sounds of fighting echoed all around him. He noticed the Sergeant’s eye was on him.

“What?” he said.

“Looks like it’s all over here.”


“Not exactly a hard fought encounter, was it?”

“Speak for yourself. I was leading this assault, remember? One of those bastards almost killed me.”

“I mean considering these are the bodyguards of a dark sorcerer and a renegade prophet.”

Rik noticed that the others were listening now, even as they thrust stuff into their packs. It was down to soiled blankets and clothing now. Well, you never knew when those might prove useful. “Maybe we should be grateful for that.”

“Maybe we should consider where the wizard keeps his treasure,” said Weasel.

“There’s that, certainly,” said the Sergeant.

“Most likely cursed,” said the Barbarian. He had a justifiable fear of the dark arts.

“Pass on the curse when you spend the treasure,” said Weasel attempting more cheerfulness than he appeared to feel. The atmosphere in the room had changed now, Rik noticed. The stillness of death had settled on it, and a kind of clammy fear. It was amazing how quickly it happened. If one of them bolted for the door, the rest of them would follow.

The Lieutenant appeared. Vosh was with him. Master Severin was not. Sardec did not look pleased. From outside came the bellowing of wyrms. The sounds of combat had died down around the building now. It looked like the Foragers had won, and scored an easy victory too. Vosh avoided the glances of the prisoners being dragged outside. They spat when they saw him until cuffed into sullen silence by the Foragers.

Sardec glanced in through the doorway, did not appear to find what he was looking for, and then moved on. Vosh disappeared along with the Lieutenant.

“They are all dead,” said the Barbarian. “Every last bloody one of them.”

They were all appalled by what they had found in this one room. The Crimson Shadows had entered through the chimney and emerged from the fireplace. Corpses filled the chamber, not one of them killed by any human agency.

Rik inspected another body, that of a grizzled oldster, long bearded, lined of face. His eyes and mouth were wide. His tongue protruded. A faint trickle of blood stained the corners of his lips and his nostrils. His skin had an odd pinkish tinge, like that of a man who had spent too long in a very hot bath, except that the discolouration showed no signs of fading. Rik prodded the body with his boot, not wanting to touch it with the flesh of his own hands, in case somehow, death should prove contagious.

The mansion had been filled with armed men. Aside from a few who had survived the massacre on the lower floor not a single one of them remained alive. Most had died by sorcery. The Crimson Shadows had sucked the life out of them. Why had they taken some and not others? There did not seem to be any logic to it.

Revulsion twisted Rik’s stomach as he looked at this evidence of uncanny magic, revulsion and something else. Here was a type of power he had always coveted.

Would he really want power like this? No, shrieked most of his being. But in one small, sick, ambitious corner of his mind, he knew the answer was yes. To have such power, even at peril of his soul, would be an awesome thing.

The squad fell to discussing their spoils. As ever they were not nearly enough for the risks run. A few minutes later, Sardec returned. His face was icy calm, a sure sign that the Terrarch was enraged. The soldiers all shrank away from him, even the Barbarian. Rik fought to stop himself from flinching. He would be the most likely butt of the Lieutenant’s anger.

“No wizard,” he said, giving the guide a glare. “No Zarahel — just a bunch of stinking tribesmen.”

“He was here, master,” said Vosh. “They both were.”

“You swore they would be here,” said the Lieutenant.

“Maybe they are nearby. Maybe they are in the mine.”

“The mine? Where is it?”

“The shaft in the hillside. The sorcerer had it dug. God only knows why. The place is haunted.”

“Maybe that was why they were interested in it,” said Sardec. “Why did you not mention they could be there before?”

“Why should I have? They were here. They were always here at night.”

“Well, they quite plainly are not now. Maybe they got wind of our coming. How far to this mine?”

“It’s on the hillside above us. I will take you there in the morning.”

“Our friends could be leagues away by then.”

“Aye, master, they could, but in that case tracking them will be easier by daylight.”

Sardec looked as if he might strike the man for a moment, but then took a deep breath and spoke, “Sergeant! Begin clearing these corpses from the house. May as well give the wyrms something to eat. You!” he pointed directly at Rik. “See that they are fed.”

No one complained. It would be easier work than building a pyre.

Rik watched snowflakes fall onto the lake. Nearby the wyrms waited. He wondered whether it was just his imagination or whether they had oddly replete expressions on their faces. The other Foragers were inside wrapped in their blankets against the cold. The Lieutenant was upstairs. He had summoned Weasel to interrogate the prisoners, a task for which the poacher had a talent and which he performed with no particular gentleness.

The screams had made sleep difficult to come by for some time. Rik wondered what Sardec had found out. Doubtless the Lieutenant would choose to share his discoveries in his own sweet time. And if he would not, Weasel would, if he had not figured out some way to profit from the situation.

The groans of the wounded were not conducive to rest. Casualties had been light but still there were some. There always were. And at the moment the dazed looking Master Severin seemed in no condition to heal them.

Some of the few surviving hill-men were wounded too but they either shut up or were put out of their misery. The Foragers did not have a lot of sympathy for the hill tribes. They’d heard too many of the stories of what the mountain men did to soldiers they captured. Woe to the vanquished indeed, thought Rik.

He had volunteered to swap Pigeon this watch because he wanted time to think. He needed less sleep than normal men anyway, and it was a favour Pigeon would owe him.

What he thought about mostly were the Crimson Shadows. It was the first time he had witnessed such a wholesale use of devastating magical power from so close a range.

It showed him how the Terrarchs could dominate a civilisation where men outnumbered them a hundred to one. He thought about the corpses of those who died from the Shadows’ attack, their skins stained a strange red, blood running from their noses and the corners of their mouth. The Shadows were a lesson to those who opposed the Terrarchs as well as a weapon.

What would it be like to wield such power, he wondered? He would most likely never know. The Old Witch had told that such sorceries drove most men mad or warped them physically to the point of death. Human beings were not meant to wield such potent magic. But then, he was only half human. If he tried, which side of his nature would win out? It would be the ultimate test of what he was.

He did not like to dwell on what the results of that test might show, so he tried to shift his thoughts to something else, to their mission.

They had been sent pretty much across the border to find some wizard who was supposed to be holed up here along with a tribal religious leader. They had come armed and equipped to take on much more than they had encountered. They had brought a wizard and enough wyrms to rout a troop of hussars. Clearly someone somewhere thought this was important.

And what had they found? Not a thing so far. Just a ruined city, a bunch of scared hill-men and talk of a haunted mine.

It was stranger yet, he thought. They were along the border with Kharadrea, and more and more Royal troops were being sent to Redtower. There could only be one reason for that. The Kharadreans would not be mad enough to invade the Realm, particularly not while fighting a murderous civil war against each other. Talorea planned some form of intervention, a thing specifically prohibited to both it and the Dark Empire by the Treaty of Oslande. It would mean war, and not just with the Kharadreans if Realm troops marched through Broken Tooth Pass; war on a scale that had not been seen in over a century.

Rik was not sure how he felt about the prospect of war in the East. It would mean plenty of plunder, and that was something of which every soldier dreamed, but it might also mean facing the massive slave armies of the Dark Empire. Those Terrarchs were not kind to humans who dared oppose them. During the schism, they had crucified regiments of men they had defeated, as a lesson to those who thought to resist them.

All manner of tales were told of the vile sorceries of the East. Rik had read about the previous wars. That had been bad enough. This one could only be worse. Alchemy and gunnery had progressed a great deal since then, and who knew what the mad wizards of Askander could do now? There were whispered tales about the necromancy and vampirism practised by the Terrarchs of the forbidden land. All he knew was that the Exalted loathed their estranged kin with a hatred religious in its intensity. What was it drove them to that, he wondered?

He shook his head and stared at the lake once more. Its surface was grey and dappled. He had let his thoughts stray a long way. He flinched. Somewhere on the far side, he thought he saw a light. It flickered and vanished, and he waited for a minute or two to see if it would reappear. When it did not, he decided he had better report the matter.

Sergeant Hef was not best pleased with being dragged from his bed to come and look for a light that was no longer there, but he was a good enough soldier to know that it might be important. He woke Pigeon and sent him off to get Vosh and find out where the mine was. The guide appeared and confirmed that it lay in the general direction in which Rik had seen the light. Unfortunately his presence brought the Lieutenant.

Sardec stared into the lightening gloom through his telescope, trusting to his Terrarch night vision to let him see what the others had not. He found no satisfaction in it though and turned his glance back gloomily towards the men of his command. He glared at Rik.

“Apparently you saw nothing,” he said. There was accusation in his tone and Rik saw another punishment detail coming.

“Perhaps he did, sir, but it’s gone now…” said Sergeant Hef. “Better to be woken by an alert sentry than have our throats slit because he was asleep.”

Not even Sardec could disagree with that. “I will feel happier when we have investigated this mine, Sergeant,” Sardec said.

“Yes, sir.”

“And happier yet when we find this wizard. There is a stink of sorcery about all this that I dislike.”

That was the first thing Rik had heard Sardec say in a long time with which he could unequivocally agree.

“And speaking of wizards, find out if Master Severin has fully recovered yet. We might need his skills before all of this is over.”

“Very good, sir.”

The Sergeant sent Pigeon on his way and followed the Lieutenant back inside. Rik returned to his sentry duties, his greatcoat buttoned tight against the cold. He really wished now that he had time to loot some of those corpses of clothing. Some of it might well have fitted him, and even if it had not, another layer would not have gone amiss in this chill.

Dawn came. Rik marched along with the others. He clutched his rifle and looked out at the lake. In the early morning light there was something about it that made him deeply uneasy; a suggestion of oiliness about the water and stillness and…watchfulness.

He felt like at any moment something might emerge from the depths and attack them, something ancient, evil and inhuman. It was all too easy to imagine strange shapes swimming around through the ruins of those submerged buildings. He told himself that they were too far from the ocean for the squid-like Quan ever to have had a presence here.

He had always feared them more than any other species of demon. There had been one priest at the orphanage, an ex-sailor who had terrified all the children with tales of massive tentacled shapes rising from the moon-lit sea. Those stories had stuck in Rik’s mind.

Foragers moved in dispersed formation all along the slope leading to the mine entrance. They were taking no chance of missing anything or of being easy prey to anybody who might start sniping at them. He wished he had been one of the forty men who had been chosen to remain at the mansion with Corporal Toby and the wyrms but Sardec had ensured he was not. That seemed to be the way of things these days. Come to think of it, it always had.

“Look at that,” said Weasel. Rik followed the direction of his nod. A half-tumbled column lay in the water. Its sides were smooth and covered in strange runes. Some of them suggested heads with masses of tentacles emerging from them, others webs, other spiders. The column was chipped and weather worn. If you looked closely there were others like it visible just beneath the surface of the waters.

Rik wondered what had once been here; a temple of some sorts to the old gods perhaps, to Uran Ultar himself. The material looked like no stone he had ever seen. It was smooth and shiny almost like glass or perhaps the carapace of some large beetle. Just looking at it made him nervous. Those runes seemed to have a hungry life of their own. He told himself it was just his imagination, but couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it.

“That’s Elder World work,” said Leon. Superstitious fear was evident in his voice. Rik nodded and shuffled uneasily upslope. He had no desire to get any closer to those columns than where he was now. They were things from the dark ages before the coming of the Terrarchs. Some of them were older than the human race. Often in the bad old days, such relics had been places of sacrifice.

“Excellent,” Rik said. “Dark wizards, Zarahel the Prophet and now Elder World runes. Why do I feel there is some connection?”

“Maybe it’s just coincidence,” said Leon.

“Let us hope so.”

“I don’t like this at all,” said Leon, rolling the unlit pipe to the far corner of his mouth and making an odd whistling noise through it. His huge eyes stood out in his thin features. Fear was etched there. Master Severin looked at them. He did not seem quite fully recovered from last night. There was a weariness and languidness about him that they had not noticed before. It was as if the magic he had unleashed had drained the strength from him.

“What have you found?” Severin asked. Haughty contempt was evident in every word. Weasel gestured towards the column where it lay in the waters. Rik guessed the scum on its side made it invisible from no great distance. Severin's shining mask reflected the murky water.

“Ultari obelisk,” he said. A thoughtful smile spread across his face. He looked more like a dreamy scholar than a Terrarch officer. “A small one.”

“Ultari, sir?” said Leon.

“One of the Elder Races. The Book of Iskarus claims they were all but exterminated by the Serpent Men in the Dark Millennia and that only decadent remnants survived into this age of the world. Those were wiped out during the Conquest along with the humans foolish enough to worship them. They used humans as food, you know.” The wizard glanced up at them, and then seemed to realise who he had been talking to and clamped his mouth firmly shut. He turned on his heel and gestured for them to move on. The guide paused for a minute, made some sort of obeisance before the column and moved on.

“See that?” said Leon as they moved on. “Looks like the hill-man worships the Old Gods.”

Rik thought it not unlikely. The Terrarch faith had never really taken root up here from what he had heard. Many still followed the old ways. He wondered at the way the mage had spoken. There was so much the Terrarchs kept to themselves. Of course, that was just one of the ways they preserved their power. He felt put down though, as if the wizard had been deliberately showing off the knowledge he had, and they did not.

Ahead of him now he could see the entrance to the mine. It yawned, dark as the mouth of hell in the cold mountainside. Lieutenant Sardec waited there impatiently with the rest of the troops; as ever his gaze seemed fixed on Rik.

Chapter Six

Rik looked through the archway. The tunnel led down into darkness. A strange fusty smell came from it, a mingling of rotten wood, dampness and something else. There were signs that someone had been here recently. He did not need to be able to track as well as Weasel to see that. The prints were there for everyone to see. Almost new wooden props held up the ceiling. Wooden buckets were stacked near the entrance. Here and there lay the hafts of old pickaxes. The heads had been too valuable to leave.

“This looks new,” said Sergeant Hef. He came from Agaline, to the west of the Realm, rough hill country famous for its mines. He had dug coal before he had gone for a soldier. Claimed he was grateful for the Queen’s crown every day it kept him above ground. Rik suspected he was not joking either.

“Somebody went down there,” said Weasel.

“Why?” said Sardec. “What’s down there?”

His eye was fixed on the hill-man. The guide shrugged. “The wizard ordered it dug. It’s haunted.”

There was real fear written on his face, and audible in his voice. “By what?” Sardec asked.

“Ghosts?” suggested Weasel.

“By something. Something that killed miners in the dark. Some said it was a demon. That’s why we started using slaves.”

“And yet this wizard and his friend the Prophet came here. Recently, by the looks of it.”

“Sounds about the right place for them, sir,” said Weasel. “Maybe they came to bind the demons.”

“I suggest you leave the magic to Master Severin.”

“Gladly, sir.”

Sardec smiled sourly. “Do you have any ideas, Master Severin?”

The wizard cocked his head to one side. “There is something very odd here. Spells have been cast deep within this mine. Magic of a type I am not familiar with. And there’s something else at work here, something very subtle. It made my spell go awry last night.”

Sardec’s cold smile widened, as if he thought the wizard was making excuses. “Vosh, anything to add?”

“The wizard, the dark wizard, ordered the mine dug here. Our people would not have done it, but they were afraid of him and what he might do. He kept them digging, down into the dark. They opened up old ways. Then he just ordered them to stop. It seemed like he had found what he was looking for. The prisoners were sent down and never came back up. No one ever saw them again. After that the wizard spent many a day down there. Sometimes the Prophet went with him.”

Rik listened carefully. He thought he heard strange groaning sounds deep within the mine. He was not the only one. Sardec looked up.

“It’s just the earth settling and props creaking,” Sergeant Hef said. “Nothing to worry about. Not much.”

Sardec looked troubled, Rik thought. His eyes were fixed on the mine and the low ceiling once more. Rik just knew he was thinking about sending the whole bunch of them down into the dark. He seemed to read Rik’s mind. He looked back at them and swiftly chose ten of them to accompany him. Sergeant Hef was to remain on the surface and stop anybody getting away that might slip by them.

“Sir,” said Leon who was one of the chosen ten. He looked extraordinarily young and nervous. “There is a wizard down there. And maybe a demon too.”

“You can trust in my magic,” said Master Severin.

Sardec unsheathed his truesilver blade. “And if that does not work, this will kill anything — wizard, demon or man,” he said.

“Too bad we don’t all have them then,” muttered Weasel so low that only Rik and the Barbarian could hear. Rik checked the elder signs hanging around his neck. He saw others doing the same; not all of them were men who had been chosen to go below.

The light of Sardec’s lantern pierced the gloom. The Lieutenant slouched low, too tall for corridors that had been built for shorter men. His blade glittered eerily in the light. His eyes were feverishly bright.

Look at him, thought Rik. He’s found a chance at glory, and he’s about to grab it with both hands, even if he has to get all of us killed to do it. Vosh was beside Sardec, looking very unhappy.

Master Severin produced a crystal from his pouch and muttered a spell. The runes along its sides flared brilliantly and then settled down to produce a steady even glow. The wizard took the crystal and placed it in a socket on a specially prepared wand. He walked forward softly. There was an aura of great weariness about him which did not reassure Rik at all. If tired men made mistakes, how much worse mistakes could be made by a tired Terrarch wizard?

Weasel was at the front, reluctantly studying the tracks for clues. The Barbarian was beside him, a pistol in one hand, his massive knife in the other. He moved warily, perfectly poised and controlled, and if Rik had not known of his terror of the supernatural and his fear of enclosed spaces, he would never have suspected them. The Barbarian was not too bright, but he was brave as a dragon.

Behind the leaders were Pigeon, and Leon, and then Rik himself, followed by the rest of the squad strung out in a straggling line. Every second man held a lit torch. The others held ready weapons. Behind Rik came Gunther, lanky Boot, Toadface, limping Hopper and Handsome Jan. Rik wished Gunther were not right behind him. The low monotone of the man’s constant prayers was getting on his nerves.

He had to admit that if ever there was a place that warranted prayer, this was it. The props overhead looked as if they had been recently placed by men who had not known a great deal about what they were doing, at least according to Hopper who, like the Sergeant, had been a miner in his time. Rik felt cramped by the low ceilings. He did not like the strange glyphs carved into the walls at odd intervals. They made his eyes hurt when he tried to follow their intricate web-like patterns. There was no surer sign that sorcery was at work.

He grasped his pistol tighter in one hand, and his bayonet in the other. There was no room to swing a rifle down here. Any fighting would be up close and personal. It was odd how hot it was when it was so cold outside. Already his shirt was clammy with sweat, and some of the men had loosened their tunics. He could see beads of sweat on Weasel’s bald pate. The poacher licked his lips, and Rik realised that his mouth must be dry too. There was dust in the air, he thought and something else. He was not sure what.

This would not be an attractive place to die, Rik thought. Not that there were any of those, unless, as the Barbarian claimed, it was in the arms of a Sorajan whore in the great Palace of a Thousand Pleasures in Sorrow, but this was a particularly unprepossessing one.

His thoughts drifted all too easily to demons and the Darkness in the shadowy gloom. Barely controlled fear churned in his stomach; fear of the dark, fear of the weight of the mountains pressing down, fear of demons, and wizards and whatever other unnatural things might lurk down here. Bad as the weather was up top, he suddenly wished he was there or back in the camp, or in the sooty alleys of Sorrow; anywhere but here.

Uran Ultar had numbered many demons among his servants, at least according to all the stories Rik had heard. Perhaps not all of them had been destroyed along with Achenar. He offered up a prayer and hoped that God was listening. It was strange. He had more or less rejected the concept of a good God the orphanage priests had beaten into him except when he was in danger. His old faith usually came back to him then or at least the hope that there was something behind it.

The corridors wound on downwards. At first he thought it was his imagination but then he began to notice that there was a faint glow emerging from the walls. He had thought that it was merely the reflected light of the lantern playing over crystal veins, but then he noticed as he looked back that there was an ever so faint glitter that never quite faded behind them. It was as if a layer of something overlaid the wall.

He looked back at Hopper. The former miner shook his head then rubbed his broken nose. The expression in his deep set eyes showed he had never seen anything like this before and more than a touch of fear. Rik was not reassured. He almost bumped into Leon before he noticed that they had stopped and were staring at another mystical sign carved into the wall. The Lieutenant studied it thoughtfully. Master Severin hunkered down beside it, nodding his head as if he had some clue as to what they were looking at. All Rik knew was that he did not like this one little bit.

“Protective rune of an odd sort,” Severin said.

“Why odd?” Sardec asked.

“Unusual. Not of any school I know. Could be a divinator or a ward but it has no halo.”

“You mean you did not sense it till you saw it?”


“I think it’s safe to say our dark wizard knows we’re on his trail,” Sardec said. There were a few half-hearted chuckles but the atmosphere of fear only deepened.

They pushed on down.

“I wonder how deep this mine goes, Rik?” asked Leon.

“Perhaps all the way down to Hell,” said Gunther. Rik wished he would shut up. This was not the sort of talk he needed to hear.

“But the Light will shield the righteous,” Gunther added. “Are you righteous?”

“You’ll get my righteous boot up your arse, if you don’t shut up,” said the Barbarian from up front. It was a measure of the Lieutenant’s involvement in his own thoughts that he did not intervene.

The strange scent increased. It smelled vaguely of spices, of cinnamon as well as rotten meat. The Barbarian noted that there were odd scrape marks on the floors and then they entered a large chamber-like cave and stopped short.

“Why would a wizard come here?” Leon asked Rik in a tone that suggested he genuinely expected an answer. His voice echoed somewhat under the high domed ceiling. “Why did he brave the demons?”

“Perhaps you are asking the wrong question,” said Rik. “Perhaps he came here because there are demons.”

It made an awful sort of sense. It was the thing wizards were always supposed to be doing, communing with demons of the Pits in pursuit of forbidden wisdom. It reminded him of some of the things the Old Witch used to say back in Sorrow, about the Ancient Ones having knowledge that men would sell their souls for. Of course there were other things demons would barter for as well as souls. He thought of the missing people. Maybe the wizard they were after was making some sort of deal.

The Foragers all looked at each other uneasily and then at the Lieutenant and the wizard for guidance. Rik could tell they were all thinking of turning tail and running. He did not blame them. He was considering it himself. Fighting demons in this deep, dark and lonely place was not his idea of soldiering. The Lieutenant looked at them and smiled sardonically. He brandished his truesilver blade, making a couple of quick cuts in the air. He looked as if he would chop down the first man to run but he said; “There is no demon this won’t cut.”

“It is the blade of the righteous,” said Gunther, a look of grim satisfaction on his face. Well, there’s one man who won’t run, thought Rik, deciding that he would not run himself. Anywhere the Lieutenant could stay he could stay too.

“I am not afraid to fight demons,” said the Barbarian. His voice sounded a little shaky but he added. “What demon of this miserable wee land can compare to the Aer of my home?”

Suddenly the Lieutenant held up his hand for quiet. Rik did not need to be told why. He could hear it too. From somewhere up ahead came the sound of soft scuttling.

It looked like something had found them.

Chapter Seven

The Foragers looked at one another. The noise ceased, to be replaced by conversation between a human voice and one that belonged to something eerily other. It was high-pitched, gibbering and insane, possessed of a timbre that was not the product of any human throat. Rik could not make out the words, and he doubted he could understand them anyway. They had the strange, cracked quality of one of the ancient demon tongues used by sorcerers in Sorrow.

“Form up men,” said the Lieutenant. “Stand ready. We are discovered.”

“What makes you say that?” muttered Weasel, edging away from the direction the sound was coming from and putting his back to the wall. Rik looked around. Most of the men had drawn pistols or knives even those who held torches. Sardec gestured for them to fall back. Space was confined and he needed room to wield his blade. The Barbarian stood beside him, a look of determination on his face.

“Don’t shoot until I give the order. Don’t want to hit our own accidentally or have a ricochet get us. This is blade work, men, unless you get a clear and certain shot.” Only the slightest trace of strain showed in Sardec’s voice.

Rik’s fingers tightened on his own weapons. Something was coming towards them, something large and heavy, something that made a strange slithering sound mixed with scuttling as it moved. His imagination conjured up the vision of a massive serpent coming to devour them or a huge spider, its slimy sides scuffing the stonework of the walls. Severin raised his arms and began to chant.

The demon came into view, and it was worse by far than anything Rik had expected. In the gloom it was not possible to make out all the details and for that he was glad. What he could see was quite bad enough to live in his nightmares for the rest of his life.

The thing was perhaps the size of a small bull, with a body that at first suggested that of a great spider till he noticed that it was armoured and segmented like a centipede’s. It moved along on six columnar legs, jointed several times. In the centre and front of its torso, where the eyes of a spider would have been, was a head that resembled the body of a squid. It had eight stalks and at the end of each stalk was an eye. In the centre was the mouth. What looked like two long stabbing prongs constantly retracted and extruded on either side of it. Worst of all were the huge blades that emerged from the front of the torso. Once they might have been legs, but they had changed and adapted till now they were massive scythes, poised to strike. They were an odd venomous green, and Rik felt sure that their touch would mean poisonous death.

The air was filled with the smell of rot and spice and something musty. The demon gibbered crazily.

“An Ultari,” said Sardec. Rik gasped. It was a name he had heard whispered in fear in the Street of Sorcerers in Sorrow. It was one of the old demon races, famed for their cruelty and insanity, the spawn of the Spider God, Uran Ultar, long thought gone from the surface of Gaeia.

It was massive. Its skin was oddly blotched and albino white. How long had it been down here, Rik wondered? How had it survived? Was it the last of its race, lurking in the shadowy depths far from the eyes of its successors? What strange tales could it tell and what strange lore did it possess?

He realised he was gibbering himself. His thoughts were a constant fear-filled babble as the thing reared over the Lieutenant and the Barbarian, moving with an awful speed despite its bulk, dwarfing the wizard, the officer and the man. It lashed out with its claws. Its first blow sliced open the wizard’s chest and sent him tumbling to the ground. The strike had cut him almost in two. Apparently not even being a master wizard made you immune to the claws of a demon.

The Lieutenant’s blade bit into the Ultari’s chitinous flesh just as one of the glistening blades lashed out at him. It caught him a glancing blow on the forehead that toppled him.

Quick as cat, the Barbarian leapt backwards, parrying a scythe with his heavy knife. An eerie screeching noise filled the air as the two met. Rik half-expected the Ultari’s claw-weapon to break but it did not. It launched another blow at the Barbarian, aiming both blades at him.

“Don’t help me you idle bastards!” shouted the Barbarian, panic and berserker rage warring in his voice. “I can take this thing all by myself! Easy!”

Rik heard feet racing away up the tunnels but did not glance around to see who fled. Instead he raised his pistol, took careful aim at the space among all those writhing stalk eyes.

As his finger squeezed the trigger, the thing flowed towards him in swift serpentine movement, its long segmented lower body rippling upwards, even as its forward torso flowed downwards. A spear-like stinger emerged from the tail, dripping some foul poisonous slime. The shot was deafening in the confined space. The smell of powder warred with the smell of spice. The creature screamed as the bullet found a resting place but Rik knew he had not killed it.

There was no time to reload. Instead Rik threw himself forward over the body of the Lieutenant, slashing with his bayonet at the creature’s leg, catching something with it, feeling cold clammy blood spurt out over his hand.

A human form flung itself forward out of the tunnel mouth, wielding blade in one hand and torch in the other. It was Gunther, filled with righteous rage and ranting about the vengeance of God. The torch flames drove the thing backwards. From somewhere in the chamber, Rik heard the Barbarian shouting; “Eat this you scaly wanker.”

The sound of a heavy blade biting home followed every word.

From out of the powder-smoke a scythe-like claw hurtled straight at Rik. Seeing what it had done to the Lieutenant, he had no desire to let it touch his flesh. He threw himself backward, tripping over Sardec as he did so, and the Ultari’s body passed over his head. He caught sight of its segmented underside, felt what seemed like hundreds of little worm-like streamers tickle his forehead. Moist slime smeared his face. He retched as he rolled out from under it.

A new note entered the demon’s gibbering. It might have been fear or pain or some alien emotion. From behind it, the human voice answered in kind. Was the mage controlling it, Rik wondered? Had he somehow bound it to his service? If so, perhaps the best way to deal with the thing was to kill the wizard.

Gunther went down, screaming in pain. The stinger tail descended towards him but missed. Rik fumbled around. His hand connected with the hilt of a weapon. It was a blade, amazingly light and well made. It seemed to fit into his hand like a glove. He realised the sword in his hand was Sardec’s truesilver blade.

He forced himself upright and lashed out at the beast’s belly where the massive leg entered the armoured torso. The blade slid home with ease, despite the way the thing’s flesh had resisted the Barbarian’s heavier weapon. Cold, greenish blood flowed forth. He struck again, and the creature screamed in real pain. The stinger spasmed and missed Gunther again.

“I knew you could not take this for long,” shouted the Barbarian. “Die, thing of evil! Taste Northlander steel!”

The demon backed up. The scythes flickered back towards Rik but they wavered now, as if the thing was weaker. The blades slashed air near him, striking almost at random. Fortunate it was for him that he was still in a half-crouch or he would have been carved into pieces. He rolled sideways, intending to get past the Ultari and find the sorcerer. As he did so, he realised he had inadvertently put himself out of the demon’s area of attack. He lashed out with the blade once more driving it deep into the beast’s right side.

It let out an ear-splitting scream, and its body flailed like a great whip. The huge rope of muscle struck Rik a glancing blow, and even its reduced force was enough to send him flying across the room and smacking into a wall. Darkness obscured his field of vision for a moment, filled with strange stars. He felt an odd sense of disorientation, and then noticed that the Ultari was retreating from the chamber, slowly and seemingly in great pain, with the Barbarian in ferocious pursuit, screaming challenges and daring the great beast to come back and fight.

Suddenly the Barbarian’s shouts were cut off at a stroke. There was no sound of a blow. Rik wondered if the creature had got him or if it were the wizard. He was almost afraid to find out. He forced his rubbery limbs to move, reeling towards the entrance to the tunnel down which both the beast and his comrade had disappeared. Through the powder smoke and gloom he thought he caught sight of Weasel and gestured for him to follow.

The Barbarian stood frozen, great muscles writhing in his neck, veins bulging in his forehead. Far off down the tunnel, Rik could just see the massive form of the wounded Ultari scuttling away. Rik had a brief vivid impression of more tunnels leading off from this one, the entrance to an endless maze. In front of the Barbarian stood a tall, slim figure robed in purple, a silver mask reflecting the light from beneath a cowl. One claw-like hand clutched a staff; the other was stretched out in an odd gesture. As that hand moved, the Barbarian began to bend forward. Rik was shocked to see that despite his apparent attempts to resist, the Northman was about to fall on his own sword. The elder sign at his throat blazed but was not potent enough to resist the mage’s power.

Rik leapt forward, the truesilver blade light in his hand. The magician sprang backwards with unnatural agility. Laughing, the mage raised his hand and made a curious gesture, speaking words in one of the old tongues. Rik felt nothing although the runes on the blade of the sword suddenly blazed to life, and he felt a slight warmth, even through the hilt. He guessed that at least one of the things they said about truesilver was correct then. It did provide protection against evil magic.

He saw the mage’s eyes go wide, and leaned forward into a long thrust that drove the blade right through his opponent’s body. The mage screamed. His staff clattered from his hands. Rik found himself almost breast to breast with the wizard as he tumbled forward. He twisted the blade as he pulled it free. The mage whimpered as he clutched at the ropes of steaming, streaming intestine that tumbled forth.

Rik struck a blow to his head with the sword’s pommel. He felt the skull crack beneath the blow, and saw shards of blood-drenched bone fly forth, but still the wizard would not die. He was merely forced to his knees. Cursing, Rik hewed his head off with the blade.

The Barbarian came up beside Rik and began to hack the body to bits with his sword. “Bastard thought he had me there, Halfbreed, but I was just lulling him into my trap.”

“Whatever you say,” said Rik looking off into the distance where the Ultari had vanished. He supposed that they could follow it by the trail of slimy blood it had left behind, but he had no intention of doing so unless forced. Footsteps behind him made him turn and he saw Weasel approach holding a torch. He immediately gestured for the Barbarian to stop chopping and bent over the wizard. Rik put his hand on the poacher’s shoulder.

“He’s mine,” he said. “I killed him.”

Weasel looked miffed but the Barbarian nodded. “He killed him.”

“Fair enough,” said Weasel.

“What about the others?” Rik asked.

“Lieutenant’s down but still breathing. So is Gunther. Pigeon caught it. Leon’s unconscious. Severin is dead. The rest of them legged it.”

Rik wondered yet again how so much could have happened without him noticing it. It took some getting used to, even though he had enough experience to know that combat was chaos.

Weasel moved off down the corridor to see what he could find, the torch making his shadow dance behind him. Rik found an amulet on the wizard’s neck, and a number of pouches, some containing powder, inside the remains of his robe. Many of these had been spilled by the Barbarian’s blade. Rik was careful to avoid touching the ripped containers and their contents, while shoving the rest of them into his own pouch.

“Might be jewels there,” said the Barbarian as if regretting his earlier support. “If there is, just remember I did my part.”

“Fair enough,” said Rik. “Let’s see what we can do for the others.”

“I’m no good at stitching. I’ll help Weasel.” Rik shrugged and returned to his unconscious comrades. It looked like Weasel had actually bothered to perform basic first aid on them, which somewhat surprised Rik.

He checked Leon’s wounds first, and saw that the boy had just taken a hard knock to the head, maybe when the Ultari had started flailing about. Astonishingly, his clay pipe lay nearby unbroken. Rik stuck it in Leon’s tunic pocket along with the lucky feather from his hat then inspected the rest of his comrades.

Gunther looked pale and shocked and his breathing was shallow. Severin was dead. Pigeon’s head had been covered with his own tunic, and when he removed it Rik saw why. His skull had been split like a melon and brains had poured out onto the floor. Rik fought down the urge to be sick, made the Elder Sign of Passage over him, and gave his attention to the Lieutenant.

He looked around. There was nobody else present at the moment. Like a bolt sent straight from Shadow it struck him that he could simply put his hand over Sardec’s mouth and suffocate him. The Terrarch was paler even than Gunther and his breathing was shallow already. For a moment, his hand hovered over the Lieutenant’s face. He could take his own personal revenge on the Terrarch race right here, right now, if he wished and there was nothing anyone could do to stop him.

Nothing, he thought, except that he could not bring himself to kill someone so helpless; nothing except that his soul would go straight to the Shadow; nothing except the fact that somebody might return at any minute. He shook his head and tried to ignore his aches and pains. What was he thinking? He wiped the truesilver blade and returned it to its scabbard, then hunted around for his own weapons. Carefully he bit open a cartridge and loaded and primed the pistol, then set himself down to wait until his companions returned and could help him to move the wounded.

It was not long before Weasel and the Barbarian appeared. “We found something,” said the poacher.

Chapter Eight

“What have you found?” Rik asked Weasel.

“Books, Halfbreed.”

“I said we’d best burn them,” said the Barbarian. “They are wizard’s books. No good can come of them. No good ever came of any book.”

“But?” said Rik. He allowed his tiredness and impatience to show in his voice. He knew this pair. If they had wanted to, they would simply have burned the books. They would not have come to consult with him. Therefore they must think there was something to be gained from this.

“Weasel said they might be treasure. He said that the right people pay well for such books.”

Rik knew in his gut that he had come to one of the cross-roads of his life. These books had belonged to a dark wizard, one who had been up to no good whatsoever down here. If they were what he suspected, they contained forbidden lore, the kind that a man could get burned at the stake for possessing. The mage they had just fought had been no saint. Quite possibly his own knowledge had driven him mad. The best thing to do with the books was to burn them. And yet…

And yet, those books and that knowledge in them represented the gateway to a world he had always wanted to be part of, the world of the sorcerer. Perhaps they contained something that would let him forge a different destiny, that could steer him away from the early death or the poorhouse, or the life of an itinerant limbless beggar that waited many ex-soldiers.

Perhaps there was something in them that could let him better himself, or at least seize some control of his life. A flash of rebelliousness passed through him. He felt the lure of the forbidden.

What if the knowledge in those books was dark, frowned on by society? What had society ever done for him? And more than anything else, he was curious.

He saw the others staring at him. Weasel licked his lips, and fumbled at the hilt of his knife. Rik realised that they were nervous too but for different reasons. They were making an offer which if reported to the wrong people could get them burned at the stake.

He could almost read Weasel’s mind. His life was on the line here in more ways than one. If this pair thought he might report them to the Inquisition, he would not leave this place alive. They were waiting for an answer, one on which his life could well depend.

“He’s right,” said Rik. He paused for a moment, to weigh his next few words, but the Barbarian leapt in eagerly.

“You mean you think we found treasure?”

“I mean we may have found it, if those books are grimoires. There are people who pay well for spell books and such. At least there were in Sorrow.”

Weasel shot the Barbarian an I-told-you-so look.

“How much?” the big man asked. Rik looked around meaningfully, concentrating his gaze on the Lieutenant. This was not the sort of conversation you wanted overheard. The others had known it already. They were speaking in very low tones indeed. All three of them shuffled towards the chamber from which Weasel and the Barbarian had come. It was a small gallery containing a rickety wooden table, a stool and a pallet for sleeping on.

“How much?” the Barbarian repeated.

“Gold,” said Rik.

“Lots of gold?” The Barbarian looked excited.

“I don’t know,” said Rik. He thought of the Old Witch and her web of dubious connections. “It was never my field. I knew someone who dealt in these things sometimes.”

“You would not be trying to put one over on your old comrades now?” asked Weasel with a slight undertone of menace in his voice. Rik shook his head. It was typical of the man, he thought. He was always trying to put one over on the world, so he thought the world was always trying to do the same back.

“Let’s see these books,” Rik said.

There were books, and lots of other stuff besides, scattered about what had obviously been the wizards temporary sanctum in a small gallery just off the main tunnel. Rik counted the books. There were half a dozen of them.

They were small, leather bound, some with flakes of embossing on their sides. He flicked through them. He was certain one was a spell-book. It contained the almost musical notation he remembered from the Old Witch’s books. Another looked like a journal. It contained a maps of what he guessed was this mine. Flicking through it, he could see that if it were correct then the whole complex was much deeper and stranger than anyone had guessed.

Most of the books were in the old tongues. They were annotated in modern Exalted by someone with very bad handwriting. Rik guessed it was the wizard.

Part of him exulted. He had actually found grimoires, although what he could do with them was anybody’s guess. He knew that just looking at them put his soul in peril of Shadow, but he could not help himself. He had always been more than curious about such things and now, perhaps, he had found a gateway to freedom and wealth. At the very least, he knew they had found something that certain curious souls would pay a great deal of money for.

“You were right,” he told Weasel. “These must be worth a fortune to the right people. We only got to find them.”

Rik stuck one of the volumes within his tunic and another couple into his knapsack. He folded up the map and put it inside one of the books. Weasel and the Barbarian began to pack away the rest.

“Not a word about these to anybody,” he said. “Not to anybody. I’ll go over them later and try to make a proper evaluation. If we can find the right buyer we split the money three ways equally.”

“That’s fair,” said the Barbarian. Weasel looked as if he were trying to find some way to haggle about it, but there was only one real angle of attack.

“We found them,” he said.

“I can read them,” said Rik. “Some of them at least. And I know people who might buy them. Who would you rather trust, me or a stranger?” Weasel gave him a hard stare and then grinned.

“Nothing good ever came from reading a book,” said the Barbarian, as if repeating a truth that had been drummed into him very young.

Weasel held up his hand for silence and stalked back the way they had come. He waited and listened for a while and then returned.

“What was that?” Rik asked.

“Nothing. I thought I heard something but there was no one there.”

“Let’s hope.”

They all looked nervously down the gallery in the direction the Ultari had vanished in. What if there was more than one of them, Rik wondered?

“Come on, let’s go get the others and get out of here,” he said. Weasel held up a hand.

“Wait,” he said.


“We don’t want anybody to come back down here checking this place,” Weasel said.

“And we don’t want that thing finding its way back up to the surface,” said the Barbarian. Rik was so wrapped up in his own thoughts, he realised he was talking about the Ultari.

“Let’s fire this place,” said Weasel.

“Dangerous,” said Rik. “It might bring the whole mine down on us.”

“No more dangerous than the other thing we are doing,” said Weasel. They were already talking around the subject. Rik thought there was perhaps something stronger that could be done. He had an uncomfortable guilty feeling that someone might already be eavesdropping on them, but when he looked around no one was there.

“That could get us burned as well,” he said. “If one of us peaches to the wrong person…”

“Now who would do that?” said Weasel.

“Not me,” said the Barbarian. “Not on a comrade.”

“Your oath on it? On your soul and hope of rebirth in the Light,” Rik said. It was the strongest oath he could think of, although not one that people who were thinking about dealing in forbidden elder lore really should be swearing by.

“By my soul and hope of rebirth,” said the Barbarian. Weasel paused for a moment. He appeared to be considering things from all angles again. Rik was surprised. The poacher was not a man who he would have expected to be all that bothered by breaking an oath. He seemed to be taking this one seriously though.

“By my soul and hope of rebirth in paradise,” he swore eventually. Both of them looked at Rik. He swore the oath. They set about looking for anything other than the precious papers that would burn. There was plenty of wood and lantern oil. It did not take long for them to pile it around the props in the ceiling that looked weakest. It took them even less time to get them alight. After that it was only a matter of running back and dragging the others clear.

As they made their way upwards, Rik thought about what they had done. He was at once excited and very scared. Lodged against his chest the books felt heavy with the promise of forbidden knowledge. He could barely wait to read them, even though it might mean the damnation of his soul and the ending of his life. He wondered what his companions would do if they knew he intended to read these books before they sold them? He knew now that he could not part with them until he had at least tried.

His fear came from the fact that impulsively they had put their feet on a very dangerous path and had not even considered what tale they would tell when they got to the surface. They would need to get their story straight on the way up, and pray nobody thought enough about what they had done to send for an Inquisitor.

It occurred to him, now that he had time to think about it, that there was no way they would not. Soldiers of the Queen had encountered a dark wizard and an Elder World demon involved in an unholy ritual. It was the sort of thing that would draw Inquisitors the way honey drew flies. Behind him he could smell burning as the flames spread.

He hoped it was not a premonition of the fate that awaited them all.

Chapter Nine

Night had fallen. The funeral service was over. Some of the Foragers watched the prisoners; most of the others were taking a few celebratory swigs of the rum Sergeant Hef had broken out. They all felt that strange sad exultation where grief mingled with triumph. The Foragers had taken Rik and his friends at their word when they claimed the wizard was dead and the demon sent scurrying underground. They had the mage’s staff, head and hands as proof. But they had lost comrades. Pigeon was just one more added to a long roll. A few of the wounded in the battle for the mansion house had passed on too.

Rik, Weasel and the Barbarian sat around their fire outside the captured manor, looking down on the ruins of Achenar. The bridgebacks loomed over them as if they would warm themselves by the blaze if they could. As ever their massive presence made Rik uneasy. He seemed to sense their brooding violence and hunger. He would have moved away if he could but there was nowhere else to go, so instead he stared into the fire.

He did not want to remember the long trudge back up through the mine, carrying the wounded, and dragging the bodies of the dead, while the smell of burning came from below them. It had been horrible, and made all the more so by thoughts of the demons that might be below them. He stared into the flames.

They immediately brought back memories of the funeral ceremony. They had given their comrades the traditional pyre despite the effort of building one in the cold. In the absence of any officers capable of performing the ceremony, Sergeant Hef had spoken the words that sent their souls on to the Light. There had been no incense for the bodies, no unguents to anoint them with, and even though they had built the pyres a good distance from the camp, the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh still hung in the air. Now all that remained of Pigeon and the others were a few charred bones on which the carrion birds would feed. In the morning, they would consign those to the grave.

Rik remembered the way the flesh had been consumed, fat sizzling in the blaze, odd popping sounds emerging from the fire, and thought that one day that would be him. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next time they fought, maybe not in battle at all but still someday, he would be on that pyre.

Like the Sergeant always said, nothing like a good funeral to make you think about these things. He had not been particularly close to Pigeon but he had known him, had gotten used to seeing him around the camp, had gotten drunk with him and his woman Ana.

And now Pigeon was simply not there. If the Prophets were right, his soul had gone to dwell with the Light. If some of the new sacrilegious philosophers were closer to the truth, he was simply gone. All that was left of him was a burnt carcass and some memories that would slowly fade. Even now the memory of the melting flesh of the corpse had partially blotted out Rik’s recollection of the man when he was still alive.

One day that will be me, he thought again, and took another sip of the rum. He tried hard to concentrate on what Weasel and the Barbarian were saying, the story they had concocted for the benefit of the Terrarchs but his own morose mood was a distraction. Currently no one seemed in the slightest bit suspicious. Rik suspected that would all change when the Lieutenant awoke. Fortunately that would not be for a while. One of the bridgebacks was being set up so that a stretcher could be laid inside the howdah for Sardec and Master Severin’s body.

He moved closer to the fire, and stretched out his hands to warm them. “All agreed then?” Weasel said. Rik and the Barbarian nodded. It was going to be best to stick closest to the facts. They would tell all of it straight, right down to burning the wizard’s body and that causing the fire that had brought down the lower levels of the mine. They would even mention using his papers as kindling. The only thing they would leave out was the fact they had preserved most of them.

“All agreed on what?” said Sergeant Hef, moving closer to the fire. They looked up at him, starting a little guiltily. Rik wondered how long he had been standing there listening. The Sergeant could move with considerable stealth when he wanted to. He cursed the rum, it was making them slow, and then he took another swig against the cold.

“Nothing, Sergeant,” said Weasel.

“Nothing, is it? And you three being thick as thieves since you got back from the mine and all.” So he had noticed that, had he? The Sergeant was too damned sharp by half. Rik wondered what else he had noticed. Hef grinned at them.

“You did a good job back there. You got out with the Lieutenant, and the rest of the lads, and you got the wizard. Those were his bits, weren’t they? You did get him- didn’t you?”

“Look at that head you have in the bag, Sergeant,” said Rik. “That’s a Terrarch head, isn’t it?”

“Of course we got him, Sergeant,” said the Barbarian. “Rik killed him deader than Emperor Goran- with my help, of course.”

“Well even if you didn’t, he won’t be getting out of that mine any time soon if all the lower levels are collapsed. Nor will the demon. A smart bit of work that. If the lower levels collapsed.”

Rik exchanged a look with Weasel. The Sergeant was fishing for information. Rik wished the Barbarian was not part of their little conspiracy. Weasel could keep his mouth shut, but it would not take an Inquisitor to get what he knew out of the Barbarian. He was not the brightest spark the Light had ever illuminated.

“He’s dead, Sergeant,” said Rik, letting a little annoyance and weariness show in his voice. “We killed him.”

“With the Lieutenant’s own blade. He won’t be pleased with that. No one but a Terrarch is supposed to handle those truesilver swords. You know how prickly they are about such things. Used to be you could be put to death for even touching one.”

“Next time I am trying to save one of our beloved Terrarchs from a wizard and his pet demon I will be sure to take that into account.”

“You’ll get no criticism from me, lad. I’m just letting you know the Lieutenant might not be as grateful as he ought to be. You know how he can be.”

Rik did indeed know, only too well. He wondered if even the Lieutenant would be petty enough to take this one out on him though. What could he do? Challenge him to a duel? Terrarchs did not fight with humans. It was beneath them.

“Things might get a bit sticky at the inquiry,” said the Sergeant. There was always an inquiry when one of the Terrarchs was killed by a human. It was the law. It was also an event. The Terrarchs were few and men were many. They always looked after their own.

The Sergeant looked at them again, suspiciously. He seemed sure they were up to something then he shrugged. “So what if you took the wizard’s gold. You deserve it.”

So that was it. He thought they had got some loot, and was sniffing around for a share. Rik looked at Weasel and saw relief written on his face too. He considered things for a moment, then fumbled in his pocket for the things he had taken from the wizard. “We got this from the body.”

The Sergeant leaned forward interestedly. He could see the rings embossed with Elder signs, and the gemstones. He tut-tutted and lifted the rings, and the amulet. “These will have to go to the Masters for examination. If they are worth anything, you’ll get your share, don’t worry. The gems will have to go into the report as well. I think we can forget about the coins. Sure there wasn’t anything else you forgot to mention? This might be a good time to tell, before the Lieutenant is up and about again.”

“Nothing, Sergeant.”

“Fair enough, lads. I think you’ll find your comrades are grateful to you for sharing your good fortune.”

The Sergeant slouched off into the gloom. “Well done, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. “Nice of you to give away our money.”

“It was mostly my money,” said Rik. “I took it from the wizard. And it got the Sergeant off our back. If he thinks we’re hiding anything, it will be gems.”

“Anyway,” he added. “You’ll get your share. The Sergeant will see to that.”

“I hope those bloody books are worth all you say,” said the Barbarian, a little sourly.

“Why don’t you just shout it out?” said Rik. “Then the other half of the camp might hear you as well.”

“Oh right. Sorry,” said the Barbarian. He even managed to sound a little sheepish. “I’ll watch my mouth.”

“Be a good idea,” said Weasel. “Wouldn’t want any Inquisitors round asking us questions in that special way of theirs. I am quite attached to my balls.”

The Barbarian laughed. “Nice one, Weasel, attached to your balls. I like that.”

Weasel just shook his head and rose. “Time for some more rum,” he said. “I’d bet a pint of ale to a pot of piss, we’ll be on the march again tomorrow.”

Rik thought so too. They had done what they came for. It was time to head back to Redtower. He felt an odd mixture of excitement and fear. That was when things would get really dangerous. Visions of Inquisitors and their torture implements danced before his eyes. Really dangerous, he thought drunkenly.

Lieutenant Sardec sat upright. His head was on fire, and he fought down an urge to vomit. He looked around and tried to work out where he was. He felt a moment of unreasoning panic when he could not see anything but a small bar of light, and then realised he was in a darkened room in the old mansion. The light was the glow of the lantern under the door. He could hear the sound of shouting and singing outside as the soldier’s celebrated their victory. As always he had to fight down a surge of repulsion and contempt.

This was what the army had come to, he thought, drunken humans swilling booze and shouting in their harsh cracked voices. It had not been like this in the old days, when his people had conquered this world, and made men fear them. Then it had been only ten thousand Terrarchs, and their dragons and their sorcery to bring an entire world full of demon-worshipping barbarians to heel.

How he wished he had been born into that earlier, glorious golden time. He envied those like his father and his uncles who had lived through it. Now everything was so diminished. The Golden Age had passed. Civilisation was sinking back into the Abyss. The stinking humans were dragging the Elder Race down to their level. He felt contaminated by their mere presence. Perhaps the Terrarchs who claimed that the Ten Thousand should have stayed on Al’Terra and died with the rest of their people were right, he thought sourly. That way the last true Terrarchs would at least have made a glorious end, and not faced this slow loss of all that was great about their people.

Sardec reached around for his sword. As he gripped its hilt he could feel strength flowing back into him. He seemed to be drawing it directly from the precious ancestral heirloom. Moonshade had been old when the Terrarchs had walked the lost islands of Al’ Terra before the Exile. It had been forged under the light of a different sun. It was a link to those older, more heroic days before the Exalted had come to this blighted world and lost their way.

Sardec groaned as he remembered his earlier awakening, and what he had learned then. It all came flooding back into his mind, filling him with shame. He recalled the fight with the Ultari. He remembered its speed and the astonishing flash of pain and paralysis when the claw struck him. He recalled the way he had lost control of his limbs. He recalled his sense of shock.

Why had Moonshade not protected him? Its Elder Signs were meant to be a sovereign protection against inimical magic. Either the blade was failing, like so much of the old magic, or there had been no magic involved with the claws, only poison. He tried to assure himself that the latter was the most likely. The Ultari were degenerate survivors of one of the Old Races, demon worshippers who had fought for possession of this world long before the coming of the Terrarchs. It must have been poison.

He knew he was just trying to avoid the most painful thought of all, that he had been saved by the half-breed, that where he had fallen, that abomination against all the laws of heaven and Terrarch had stood and triumphed, and worse, he had done it with Sardec’s own sword. Even in the dark he could feel his skin grow taut with shame. As soon as he got back to camp he would have to have the Priests perform a ritual of cleansing to remove the taint from the weapon. Just the thought that one of Rik’s tainted blood had touched the weapon made his fingers weak, and the hilt difficult to clasp.

What was worse- the men had seen it. They had witnessed his fall in what should have been triumphant single combat against the demon. He would be a laughing stock even among his own people when word of that got around. The Terrarchs were not a people to forgive any sign of weakness, and his brother officers would use him as a whetstone on which to sharpen the blades of their wit. The taint might be removed when the blade was purified, but the stain on his honour never could be.

Just the thought of Rik goaded him to greater rage. He loathed the creature. It astonished him that his brother officers could stand seeing that face, those features amid the common soldiery of their own camp. Did they not see the affront it was to them, that one of his tainted and diluted blood should be allowed to mock them by his very presence? How he despised those of his own race who wallowed in the mire with the females of the human kind, who thrust themselves into the tainted ripeness of their bodies, who…

Sardec wrenched his thoughts away from such vileness. Severin was dead! A wizard lost. All in all, he thought, this expedition had not been a good one for the Elder Race. The humans had managed to complete at least part of the mission while their betters had been left sprawled senseless on the ground. The Colonel would say that it merely showed how well they had been trained, that they had reacted so well to the situation, but Sardec knew differently.

He knew that, treason though it was to say it aloud, in some ways the Blues were right and the Reds were wrong. It was a new world now, one in which the power of the Terrarchs would slowly slip away, and with it all that remained of their great culture. Unless something was done a new mongrel civilisation would emerge, one which the Reds seemed prepared to accept and make peace with. Sardec knew that was their mistake. The Terrarchs were the source and fountainhead of all that was fine in this world, and they held their place now only by virtue of their ability to overawe the members of the inferior races.

Today he had contributed to the erosion of that ability and it made him so sick he could almost have wept. He had let down his people, his bloodline, his family and the proud warrior legacy of his father. There were times he knew he could never be what his father had been and it clawed at his gut like a sword wound. This was one of those times. He swore he would find a way to make that Rik share some of his pain, although he doubted the beast could feel more than a small fraction of it.

“That’s the last,” said Weasel, looking at the corpses they had tossed down in front of the bridgebacks.

“This was not right,” said Rik. He was surprised to find he meant it. The hill-men had been enemies, and he normally wasted no thought on the deaths of those. But they had also been killed by elder world sorcery and had their souls devoured and now their mortal remains were food for wyrms.

“Don’t waste your sympathy,” said Sergeant Hef. “These men were scum. They consorted with the forces of Shadow. They served a sorcerer. They helped feed that demon. Their master Zarahel wants to bring back the Spider God. They say he’s going to drive the Terrarchs from the land and restore the lost glories of man.”

Rik knew this but it did not help a great deal. He thought about the thing that lurked in the mine. Had these men known? They surely must have guessed something but maybe in some ways they had been just like he and his comrades, following orders. Maybe they had been enslaved in the service of a madman they had not dared defy. Having spent some time in the army that was something he could identify with. And where were the bodies of all those people who had vanished in the mine? He saw Vosh coming closer; he looked very pale. He had done so ever since he had scuttled in fear from the mine.

“No sign of Zarahel?” Rik asked the hill-man. He had known the man, after all. His former kinsmen had cursed him as they died.

“He’s not among the dead. It looks like he got away.”

“What’s he like?” Leon asked, scratching his bandaged head. His skull had taken a nasty crack when the Ultari’s convulsions threw him across the chamber. He was pale and his breathing was fast. His eyes were wide, pupils dilated. He seemed to be taking this feeding squad duty worse than the rest of them. Rik was surprised to see Vosh shudder.

“He claimed he was of the blood of the old princes, of the Priest Kings who worshipped Uran Ultar. He would talk about that, and there was something about the way he talked that made you believe him, made you believe that the Old God would rise soon.”

“Why did you sell him out then?” asked the Barbarian, somewhat untactfully, Rik thought.

“Only a madman would want the Old Gods back,” said Vosh. “Only a damned heretic unbeliever would listen to all that devil’s talk of the old days come again, of immortality here in the flesh. Aye, immortality for the chosen few- just like it was in the old days. The rest of us would be just…food for his god, just like we were back then. Zarahel’s breed are not the only ones who remember the Old Days. The rest of us know some stories too.”

All of this was making Rik think uncomfortably of the books he had stowed away in his pack. He decided to change the subject.

“How do you think he got away?”

“Maybe he knew you were coming. Maybe he was away on one of his trips. He was always coming and going among the tribes, trying to whip up support for his plans, trying to get the chiefs to unite against the Terrarchs.”

“I can see why we were sent here to get him,” said Leon, fitting his pipe into his mouth and for once filling it and lighting it.

“Think he’ll come to pay us back for this?” Leon asked. It was a thought that had been on all their minds. They had all heard the tales.

“If he does, I’ll cut his heart out and make him eat it,” said the Barbarian, staring off into the distance. There was an undercurrent of worry in his voice.

“Look over there,” said Weasel. Rik followed his gesture and saw the glint of something on the hillside. He covered his eyes and squinted and could just make out several squat figures loping upslope. “Bloody hill-men are already watching us. When word gets out of this, the clansmen will be hot for vengeance.”

“Let them be,” said Sergeant Hef. “By the time they get organised we will be back in Redtower.”

“They might come looking for us,” said Weasel. “There’s nobody like hill-men for vengeance-seeking when their blood is up.”

In the distance they heard bones splinter as the wyrms started to feed. All of them looked at each other. “Well, at least we don’t have to chop wood and build a pyre,” said Weasel, eventually.

Somewhere in the distance somebody blew a horn, the signal to get back and mount up. It was time to head back to the lowlands.

Chapter Ten

As they breasted the last ridge and Redtower came into view, plumes of dust told Rik that something was happening down there. Such clouds had to be kicked up by a sizeable force, and as he looked closer he could see that troops of cavalry wheeled and manoeuvred on the plain. Hastily thrown up breastworks marked the position of artillery. It looked like the Seventh had been joined by a considerable force.

He saw he was not the only one to have noticed. Lieutenant Sardec had his telescope pressed to his eye and surveyed the scene continually. Shouts passed from howdah to howdah, as the rest of the Foragers noticed what was going on.

“Looks like we really are getting ready for war,” said Weasel. “Must be a squadron of hussars down there, and at least a battery of heavy artillery. More wyrms too.”

“Those will be to carry the cannons,” said the sergeant. He did not seem at all surprised by this new development. Rik pointed this out.

“Use your head, Halfbreed,” he said. “What time of year is it being? Spring! Campaigning season! The reason why we were sent here to hold the mouth of the pass last year was so we would be here now. Now we have cavalry and artillery. My guess is that more will be arriving soon. There’s only one place we’ll be going.”

“And where’s that, Sergeant?” asked Leon.

“Kharadrea, lad,” said the Sergeant. “Where else would we be going?”

“The Dark Empire might object,” said Weasel.

“I don’t doubt they will,” said the Sergeant. “I don’t doubt that is the whole point. I don’t doubt we’ll be at war with the Blues before this year is out. Somebody’s going to sit on old Orodruine’s throne, and I doubt Her Majesty wants that someone to be anyone sympathetic to the Power of the East like Prince Khaldarus.”

“Lot of plunder in Kharadrea,” said Weasel.

“Lot of pretty girls too,” said the Barbarian. “Bonniest in the world, outside the Northlands.”

“My guess is we’ll march right after the Masque of Solace,” said Sergeant Hef.

“Looks like we’ll be on campaign again soon, boys!” yelled Leon in a fit of youthful enthusiasm. “Plunder for all.”

He was joined in enthusiastic whoops by all the rest of the Foragers. Even Rik joined in eventually, although he was far more interested in the contents of the books they had found than in the prospect of plunder.

The camp around the Redoubt had expanded considerably since they had set out to find the Prophet, and seemed to be getting bigger by the hour. Every minute a cloud of dust announced the arrival of a wagon full of merchants or camp followers.

On the way into camp they were greeted loudly by a cartload of well-rouged young ladies. There were always such. Soldiers on campaign grabbed loot with both fists and spent it with both hands, as men will when they know each day might be their last. There would be no shortage of women following them when they hit the road.

There were a lot more destriers about. Riders in the red frogged tunics and tall hats of hussars were everywhere. “What regiment, lads?” bellowed the Barbarian as a troop of them rode past.

“17th lancers,” came the reply. “The Queen’s Own.”

The Foragers managed a ragged cheer. In their excitement they had forgotten the traditional dislike of infantry for cavalry. Even the Lancers’ Terrarch officers managed cold smiles when they heard. A new sense of purpose energised the camp. There were more riders, more soldiers, more women, more travelling peddlers, more of everything. The old familiar winter lines were gone. It felt in some ways as if they had been gone for months rather than just a week, so much had changed. New tents crammed into the spaces between the old ones. New faces stared out the doors of some of the lean-tos. Rik knew that would mean trouble if a Forager came home and found some new man in his woman’s bed. Such things were not uncommon either.

They dismounted from the bridgebacks at the corral and waited to be dismissed. It did not take long. The few hill-men prisoners were led off to the Redoubt for interrogation. The Lieutenant seemed eager to get away and make his report to the Colonel even though he was unsteady on his feet. He took a few strides and then collapsed. Some of the men nearby ran to help him. Rik felt no urge to do so. He felt a brief spurt of savage glee as the Lieutenant was carried off to the Masters to be healed.

Master Severin’s body had already been carried back under the strangely inscribed tent that acted as awning over the entrance to the large stone house the Regiment’s wizards all shared. The Death Angel flags in the Exalted quarter flew at half mast, a reminder to all that Mourning had begun. Everyone within sight of a Terrarch wore a solemn expression.

“Bastard,” muttered the Barbarian. “Mourning Time. Back just in time to listen to the Terrarchs whine about their lost land. Bread and water for rations too. What a treat!”

Rik was willing to bet that Weasel would somehow manage to get more than that during the period of fasting.

“At least there’s the Masque to look forward to,” said Leon, chewing his empty pipe. “That’s always fun.”

The Foragers made their way back into their camp. Rik watched Weasel and the Barbarian vanish off to find the Quartermaster. He made his way to the shack he shared with Leon and Hopper and Handsome Jan. The last two went their own way. They seemed a little embarrassed about having run off during the fight in the mine, and found it difficult to meet his eye. Rik understood that, just as he understood their resentment even though he should have been the one doing the resenting.

As he walked along beside the limping Leon he wondered what to do about the books. His knapsack seemed like the best place, although it was far from ideal. Constant petty thievery was rife in camps like this. He doubted that more than one in a hundred of the soldiers or their hangers-on would have the slightest idea of what they had found if they stole the books, but all it would take would be one, and that one reporting matters to the wrong person, and he would be in the sewer, neck-deep.

Perhaps he was worrying too much. He had owned books before and had never had one of them stolen. They were of no real value to most people in the camp, and they were hard to dispose of too. Perhaps the best bet would be just to let them be, and pretend they were just like other volumes he had read in the past. Nobody who was likely to come into his billet would have the slightest idea of their contents. He knew he would have to leave them somewhere. Nothing would attract suspicion like carrying all his gear everywhere. He shook his head. Already he was falling into the mind-set of the guilty. It was something he remembered well from his time as a thief in Sorrow.

Once the crime was committed and you had made your getaway, there was always this sense that every eye was on you, that every hand would soon be turned against you, that every voice would raise the hue and cry. If that happened, and the mob started baying for blood, you were dead. Even walking through the alleys of the Maze you felt that everybody knew what you were about, and would either report you to the thief-takers, or demand a piece of the action. He remembered what the Old Witch had told him, and Koralyn too before the man was hung. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred nobody has any idea. They are all too wrapped up in their own business. There is no sense in looking guilty. Just relax, behave naturally and be ready to run at the slightest sign anything is wrong.

He tried to take their advice now but he knew that running would be difficult. The Queen’s Army did not take kindly to deserters. That thought brought home to him just how much his life had changed since they found the books. Not a week ago he would never even have contemplated desertion. He had found among the Foragers something of the home he had never really known when he had been growing up. And that made him think of the strange alchemy of circumstance. When he had taken the Queen’s crown, the last thing he had expected was to find a home. All he had been looking for was protection from Antonio’s bully boys and a quick way out of Sorrow with all his limbs still attached.

Leon ditched his gear and strode out to get some water. Rik ducked his head as he entered the billet. It had been a shepherd’s bothy once and it was full with four men’s gear. He shrugged. It was nothing compared to the slums of Sorrow where families lived ten to a room in cramped tenements. At least here the air was clean and did not smell quite so much of sewage. They were far away from where the men squatted over the latrine trenches.

He took the books from his pack, stuffed them into a leather sack and reached up and put the sack into the shadows atop the rafter beams. No one would see them there and no one would think to look there. He would try and find a better hiding place later.

It was time to visit Karl Mandrake. If anybody could give him a clue to what had gone on back there in the mountains, it would be the Wyrm Hunter.

Karl sat outside his shack sorting through his box of gear. It lay on the ground before him atop several old blankets. It did not seem possible that one man could possess such a large supply of equipment but Karl was a Wyrm Hunter, and these were the tools of his trade. It was his job to kill wyrms and even dragons on the field of battle, and that was a thing that required all the tools modern alchemy could supply, as well as a stock of insane courage.

He looked up as Rik approached and nodded in greeting, then returned to oiling the crossbow he held in his hands. A look towards the jug of ale that sat nearby told Rik that he was welcome to take a slug, and then he gave his gaze back to the plains below.

Some sort of exercise was taking place. Infantry marched and wheeled to the beat of a drum. They were moving towards one of the emplacements, practising storming drill. It looked like someone among the Terrarchs had decided it was time for the men to throw off their winter sloth, and reacquire some discipline. Overhead a devilwing paced the infantry, some staff officer watching his troops through a Leash no doubt. What was it like to link your mind with that of a flying wyrm and look out through its eyes, he wondered, then resigned himself to the fact he would never know.

Karl pointed to the jug with the crossbow. Rik considered the booze for a moment. All alcohol was forbidden during the period of Mourning. A glance around told him that nobody nearby seemed to care. He slumped down with his back towards the hovel’s wall and took a drink.

“How is it going?” Karl asked. He had a surprisingly light voice for a man so huge. “You look like a wyrm just shat in your dinner and the Terrarchs made you eat it.”

Rik told him Pigeon was dead.

There was a sympathetic expression in Karl’s brown eyes that was at odds with his beetling brow, bald tattooed head, and barbaric-looking plaited beard. Rik was not surprised. Like most Wyrm Hunters, Karl was an unusual man. He could read and he possessed a fund of strange lore, not all of it merely useful for his job. He set down the crossbow and cloth with great care, picked up the ale jug and took a long swig. His massive belly wobbled with every gulp. He passed the jug to Rik.

“To the departed,” he said. Rik drank.

“To the departed.”

Rik watched the soldiers below marching towards the earthworks. The company belonged to the Seventh. He could see the Death Angel fluttering on its battle-flag. Another company waited for them, weapons ready. Someday soon, he thought, we are going to be doing this for real.

“Death’s part of a soldier’s life,” Karl said.

“It’s part of everybody’s life,” said Rik. “Unless you’re one of the Terrarchs.”

“No,” said Karl with an air of great deliberation. “They die too. They just live a lot longer than we do.”

Rik took another swig and looked at him.

“I’ve seen Terrarchs die,” Karl said. “On the battlefield, from the Grey Sickness, from accidents. Their corpses stank same as a man’s. Hey, it’s Mourning Time, remember. What do you think they are mourning for?”

“The loss of the Blessed Land, the destruction of their Patron Adaana, their defeat by the Princes of Shadow and their flight to a new world; our world. I seem to recall the Book of Prophets mentions all this.”

“Nice to know you’re familiar with Holy Scripture but you’re missing my point. They die, same as us.”

Rik could see what he was getting at. “Their souls go to the Higher Paradise though.”

Karl gave him his slow smile and went back to polishing one of his glass grenades. Strange chemicals swirled inside. Rik watched a little nervously, wondering what would happen if the Wyrm Hunter dropped it. One of those things could probably kill half the company storming the fortifications down there. Karl seemed untroubled though, and probably with reason. For all his massive bulk he moved with a careful deliberation. Still, Rik thought, everybody makes mistakes. There’s always a first time.

“Do they?” asked Karl. “How can you be so sure? Nobody has ever come back to tell us what happens after death. No human. No Exalted. Not even one of the Elder Races as far as I know.”

“The Prophets tell us.”

“So they do. Ever met any of them? Did they die and come back?”

“Erewen did.”

“You sure? You see it?”

“You’re verging on blasphemy.” Rik was at little shocked. Wyrm Hunters were given a lot of leeway even by the Terrarchs. Many of them went more than a little crazy due to all the poisons and chemicals they worked with. Still, Karl was going a little too far. He seemed to appreciate this himself.

“I tumbled over the edge of blasphemy some time ago. Or maybe it’s heresy, whatever. What you gonna do? Report me to the Inquisition?”

That was exactly what he should do, Rik knew, and exactly what Gunther would, but he knew he was not about to do it. He valued his friendship with the big man. Had done ever since they had run into each other drunk in some roadside tavern and he had been surprised to notice the Wyrm Hunter reading one of the histories of Azalus. All knowledge was useful to a man in his trade Karl claimed, and Rik did not doubt he was right.

“What do you know about a demon called the Ultari?”

“The Ultari or an Ultari?”

“Either. Both.”

“It’s Ultari singular or plural. They were one of the Elder Races, some sort of connection with the Spider King Uran Ultar according to Ostarch. Strode this world on their six legs in the ages before men and Terrarch, spreading darkness, devouring souls; the usual sort of thing. They were supposed to hate daylight and fire and truesilver, the usual stuff. The Terrarchs did for the last of them about a thousand years ago, or so they say. Buried them beneath that big mountain up there.” He gestured vaguely in the direction of the glittering cloud-capped peaks. “Why do you ask?”

“According to the Lieutenant one of them killed Pigeon.”

“You see it?”

“With my own eyes.”

“Touch it?”

“I hacked it with a sword.”

“You sure it was an Ultari?”

“How the hell should I know? That’s what the Lieutenant called it.”

“He would most likely know. So you saw an Ultari. I would give my right nut for that.”

“I almost did.”

“You can say you’ve seen something that most men haven’t and never will. I thought they were extinct. Most of the Old Races are, if you believe the books. Just goes to show that you should take everything with a pinch of salt. The Ultari were all supposed to have died when the Terrarchs destroyed Achenar at the time they put Uran Ultar down.”

“Any idea why a wizard would be talking to one of those things?”

“You kidding?”


“Most wizards would give their souls to talk with an Elder World demon. They’re supposed to possess all sorts of forbidden knowledge. Used to be all manner of folks sought them out to learn but the Inquisition put a stop to that. It all started in the days before the Terrarchs, in the Age of Men.”

“There was a wizard there. You think he was after knowledge?”

“I don’t imagine he was planning on having sex with it.”

“You never know.”

“What actually happened?”

Rik told him, leaving out the part about the books, stressing the fact that the wizard had been talking to the demon.

“Best be careful there, Halfbreed,” said Karl nodding slowly to emphasise his point. “That’s Inquisition stuff you’re talking about.”

“I know. I know. I just find my head full of unhealthy curiosity these days. Call me strange but I like to know why I killed someone.”

“You killed a wizard and stabbed an Elder World demon.” Karl whistled. “You’ve been busy. Planning on having a storybook written up about you?”

“It just happened that way. I was only trying to stay alive.”

“That’s a healthy attitude, one to keep in the forefront of your mind. Sounds like you were lucky.”

Rik looked at all the weapons. It was time to change the subject he could see. “What are you up to?”

“Just preparing my gear. We’ll be moving out soon, I’m guessing.”

“Have new orders come in?”

“Not yet, but they will. We’ve had dragon couriers, reinforcements and a new commander is on his way according to the Quartermaster, and he should know. The big boys are not doing this for fun. We’re going somewhere and my guess is over the border.”

Rik’s thumb jabbed in the direction of the pass. “That means war and not just with the Kharadreans.”

“I know. Why do you think I am taking such care with my gear?”

“You always do that.”

“I am doing a full inventory check. I might actually get to kill a dragon if we go against the Blues. Might get to kill some Purples too. I hate those slave-owning bastards like poison.”


“I thought you had read the history books, son. They think us humans are fit only for slaves and feeding to the dragons.”

“I can think of some on our side of the border who think the same way.”

“Don’t kid yourself, Halfbreed. Nobody on our side thinks the way the Blues do. They want to bring the past back to life. They want to repeal all the Scarlet Queen’s reforms. They want us all back in our place which is a big shit-hole with the lid pushed down heavy.”

Rik thought now would be a good time to change the subject. He was in no mood to listen to Karl’s ranting right now, even though he agreed with most of it.

“Who are these new guys?”

“Hussars, artillery. Scouts and siege workers. The usual mix. The cavalry men are snotty, their Terrarchs snottier still. The artillery are all right. I drank with some of them and talked about maths and mixtures.”

“Gunpowder mixtures?”

“What else?”

“When do you think we’ll leave?”

“When the General gets here. When we get all the carts and mules we need. When the Festival of Mourning is over. Take your pick.”

“Some high muck-a-muck coming then?”

“Yes. All sorts of rumours; maybe even one of the First.”

“That clinches it; it’s war. That sort don’t come to the field unless there’s the chance of glory.”

“Now you are thinking like a soldier,” said Karl.

“How long till he gets here?”

“Camp talk says another couple of days, three at the most. The Quartermaster says he’s already on his way.”

“Then we’ll wait for the skies to clear and be out of here.”

“That’s my guess. Before we go, there will be a whole round of exercises and inspections, just to keep us on our toes.”

“Thanks for the beer. I better go and see what the rest of my mob are up to.”



“Be careful. After that business in the mines the Terrarchs will have their eyes on you. There will be an inquiry sooner or later.”

“So?” Rik felt sure his guilt about the books must show on his face.

“If you were an ordinary soldier, I would say you would be up for big things. Commendations, promotions, sugar plum fairies.”

“But I am not.”

“We both know you’re the bastard get of one of them. They don’t like that. Not in a common soldier. Some of them will think you are showing them up, others that you are getting above yourself.”

“Not much I can do about it now, is there, Karl?”

“You’re starting to sound like me now. You never know; they might make you a Wyrm Hunter.”

“Death or glory, eh?”

“The pay is good.”

“Yes, but I would have to hump one of those bloody big trunks around.”

“Be good for you, give you muscles. Say hello to Sergeant Hef for me. Tell him he owes me a beer and I’ll be around to collect.”

“Surely,” said Rik rising to his feet and suddenly realising how strong the ale was. He gave Karl a wave and reeled off downhill. As always the Wyrm Hunter had given him a lot to think about. He had not considered the fact that the Terrarchs might consider his heroism an embarrassment. That was something that could be potentially lethal — as if he did not have enough on his plate as things stood. It would be bad enough if they caught him this drunk.

He looked down slope one last time. The exercise was over. Lots of men lay sprawled in the mud pretending to be dead. Someday soon they would not be pretending.

Chapter Eleven

Sardec stood before Colonel Xeno’s desk. He had forced himself from his sickbed to make his report in spite of the wizards. They had wanted to make sure there were no lingering side effects from his wounds and the Ultari’s poison, but duty was duty after all, as his father was fond of saying.

His superior looked him up and down, paying particular attention to his bandaged head and his pallor. Sardec could feel Xeno judging him. The Colonel had never bothered to conceal his opinion that Sardec was just another placeman, an officer by virtue of his family connections, too young to be of any use whatsoever. Not that Xeno’s opinion made much difference. Xeno was Colonel only because Sardec’s uncle Ansalec, who owned the regiment and its charter, preferred to spend his time at court these days. He was of a good but impoverished family, a competent commander but lacking the extensive web of connections that would get him a better place. Sardec suspected it had made the Colonel bitter.

After this long, silent inspection, Xeno put down his quill, sanded his signature on a scroll and handed it to his clerk, a human mute whose tongue had been surgically removed to make sure he did not spread any secrets among his illiterate brethren. Xeno rang a small silver bell to summon a servant then he returned to toying with the small prayer crystal that lay beside his right hand.

“Light,” he said curtly as the servant entered. The human moved round the chamber, lighting the lanterns. It was that time of year when it still got dark quite early in the evening.

Sardec was glad that Xeno waited for the man to withdraw before they continued their conversation. Doubtless, he would wait outside listening to see what he could hear that might turn out to his advantage. Humans were all the same.

Xeno gave Sardec a wintery smile and gestured for him to be seated. The stool was hard and low so that Sardec found himself having to look up at his commander. It was a simple trick to make him feel his inferior position but it worked. Older Terrarchs stopped at nothing when it came to keeping their juniors in place. Wishing to show he was not intimidated, Sardec stretched out his long legs in front of him, and waited for the Colonel to speak.

“Things went a little astray,” Xeno said in his deceptively soft voice, leaning back in his chair and steepling his fingers. There was a calm, chilly efficiency about the Colonel that always reminded Sardec of his father.

“Yes, sir,” said Sardec. “They did.”

“You were sent out to make an example of this so-called Prophet, and you failed.”

“Regrettably, the Prophet refused to fall in with our plans, sir. He simply was not there.”

“You think he got wind of our trap?”

“It’s hard to see how he could have, sir. You gave the order to set out as soon as you had news of his whereabouts.” Sardec thought it best to remind the Colonel exactly who had planned and authorised this mission, just in case he happened to be looking for a scapegoat. Xeno gave him his cold smile again. He understood the point.

The Colonel gestured to his clerk. The mute reached over and fumbled through the pile of thick, leather bound logbooks sitting on his table. He opened one and began to make several notes.

“You say there was a wizard who was involved with an Ultari, Lieutenant.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Are you certain? No one has sighted one of those demon spawn in nearly a millennium. They are supposed to be extinct. We destroyed them utterly when we smashed Achenar.”

“I have never seen a living one, sir, but this fits all the descriptions in the Bestiaries. It was spider-like yet not a spider with the distinctive squid-like…”

“Yes, Lieutenant, I am familiar with what Ultari are supposed to look like. I mean are you sure it was not the product of some hallucinogenic enchantment, or an alchemically created illusion.” Sardec was suddenly conscious of his youth. If he had been only a century older, Xeno would not talk to him that way.

“It was physical, sir, as I think my wounds prove. The men saw it too.”

“Illusions are always plausible. Wounds can easily be inflicted by men in their panic.”

“I bear a truesilver blade, sir. It was not an illusion.” Sardec almost winced as he said the words.

“An ancestral heirloom I am given to understand.” Sardec wondered if Xeno was jealous. Such blades as Moonshade were rare. Even some of the Great Houses did not possess artefacts dating back to before the Exile. The Colonel’s smile widened and Sardec knew what he was going to say next. The clerk’s pen continued to scratch away.

“I understand one of your men used your blade to drive the Ultari off while you were incapacitated.” Sardec wished he could deny that but he prided himself on his honesty. If a Terrarch officer did not behave with honour, who would?

“That is so. The blade is being ritually purified now.”

“That does not concern me, Lieutenant. That is your business. I am merely concerned that this soldier’s bravery is properly recognised.”

“It was the one they call the Halfbreed, sir.” Sardec allowed his distaste to show in his voice. “Rik is his given name.”

“The one who appears to be possessed of some Terrarch blood? Well, at least he is not disgracing us.” Sardec looked at the Colonel. Was there a veiled insult there? Was he implying that somehow Sardec had? As a junior officer in the field, Sardec could not call the Colonel out, but they would not always be in the field, and then Sardec could find some reason to demand satisfaction he was sure.

“Let us return to the matter of the Ultari, Lieutenant.” The Colonel was being persistent in his line of questioning, Sardec noticed and wondered why? When dealing with older Terrarchs it was always better to be circumspect. Their motives were rarely straightforward.

“By all means, sir.”

“You are absolutely certain it was one.”

“As certain as I can be, never having encountered one before. It most assuredly answered to the description of one.”

“That is most unfortunate.”

“Why, sir?”

“The last war we fought with that demonic race was a bitter one. If they should have returned, it is a matter that needs investigated. The timing could not have been worse with this trouble brewing across the border.”

“You think it might not be coincidental, sir?”

“I most certainly hope it is coincidental but if it is not…”

“Master Severin might have been able to tell you more, sir.”

“Would that he could! Perhaps you would be so kind as to tell me what happened. Leave out nothing.”

The Colonel smiled blandly and they went over the tale again and again. All through the interview the clerk’s pen scratched on and on and the whole debacle was recorded for posterity in the Regiment’s Chronicle.

“The renegade wizard was a Terrarch?” asked Xeno.

“His head proves that,” said Sardec, smarting from the fact that he had not been present to witness the death. That was something the Inquiry would bring out.

“I wonder who he was.”

“His name was Alzibar, sir. Or so the hill-man Vosh claimed.”

“I know that, Lieutenant. I meant what his background was.”

“I do not know, sir. Perhaps he was a Kharadrean or perhaps some renegade from the Dark Empire. Or if not, then some adventurer; one of those who have disgraced themselves in the Realm and seek refuge into Kharadrea.”

“You were not in Kharadrea, Lieutenant.”

“Let us say, sir, that the exact position of the border is unclear in that area.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. I like that. A precise piece of imprecision.”

“There were no clues to the Terrarch’s identity save the sorcerous tokens he bore. Perhaps our wizards can find a clue there. I understand my Sergeant delivered them to the Masters.”

“Let us hope so. If that fails there are always the prisoners.”

“We questioned them thoroughly, sir.”

“The Inquisition will most likely be more thorough. I have sent for an Inquisitor.” Of course, thought Sardec. This would be an Inquisition matter now.

“When will the inquiry be, sir?”

“Whenever it is politic. The date is as yet undecided.” Sardec wondered what exactly that meant. Did he mean an investigation might embarrass some notable? Or did he mean that now, with rumours of war abounding, was not a good time to have tales of Terrarchs involved in dark sorceries circulating. His father had told him that such things had been covered up in the past.

“It is possible that the sorcerer was not a Terrarch at all,” said Xeno blandly. “Perhaps he was some half-blooded renegade. Do you think that is possible, lieutenant?”

Sardec considered this. He could see what Xeno was driving at. Having the humans know that one of the Exalted was in league with the powers of Shadow would be a blow to their prestige and thus their power. That was not needed with the winds of a new war blowing across the Ascalean continent. It was one thing for them to hear rumours about the Dark Empire. It was another thing for them to have proof of things their small minds were not capable of dealing with. Even so Sardec could not bring himself to lie outright. “I was not present at the kill, sir.”

“A very diplomatic answer. But you have seen the head?”

“Yes, sir.”

“And you agree with me that it could belong to a half-breed.”

“It could, sir.” That was true. In death, it was difficult to tell.

Xeno smiled. “All things considered you did well, Lieutenant Sardec, as I would expect from the scion of such an illustrious family.”

Sardec searched for irony in Xeno’s words and could find none. “Sir?”

“This Zarahel may have slipped through our grasp but his wizard is dead, the Ultari is imprisoned deep below the earth and we have taught the hill-men a bloody lesson. That was the whole point of the exercise, and I would say you and your men have achieved your goals admirably.”

Despite himself, Sardec felt the praise affecting him. This was his first real solo field command and he was relieved at simply not having disgraced his family’s name.

“I will make sure Lord Azaar knows of your performance once he arrives.”

“Lord Azaar, sir?” Sardec could not keep the astonishment out of his voice. “The Conqueror?”

“Yes, Lieutenant. The Lord of Battles himself is taking command in the field. He’s a friend of your family, I believe.”

It was now evident why the Colonel was being so pleasant, Sardec thought sourly. The small feeling of pride he had taken in Xeno’s commendation vanished. The Colonel was playing politics. If Azaar was their new supreme commander, and their new supreme commander was a friend of Sardec’s family then it was only sensible for the Colonel to stay on good terms with him. Sardec made a swift calculation. He would prefer to be judged on his own merits but he knew that was impossible in the modern army. He would need all the advantages he could get. War was coming, and there would be a great deal of manoeuvring among the junior officers for promotion. Sardec meant to see that some of that glory was reflected on his House and on himself.

“He’s a friend of my father, sir.”

“Very good. I thought you would like to know that he will be taking up residence at Lady Asea’s palace. She is his half-sister.”

“I would greatly appreciate permission to send my card, and would request permission to visit the Lady, should she be kind enough as to request my presence.”

“I am sure we could see our way clear to that,” said the Colonel. He looked down at his papers. As all the junior officers knew it was a clear indication that the interview was over.

“You may go, Lieutenant,” said Xeno just to emphasise the point.

Chapter Twelve

The camp buzzed with rumours of the new commander. It seemed like every second person had something to say on the subject. Rik did not care all that much. He was tired and wet. He had spent most of the afternoon playing dead in a ditch while Hef and the lads stormed a makeshift emplacement. Sardec had ruled that he had been hit by enemy fire and ordered him to lie there face down in the mud, surrounded by stinging nettles. He was hungry. They were allowed only water and the smallest rations of the plainest of foods during the Mourning.

Rik already had plenty to think about. He had seen with his own eyes that most of the town’s carters had been hired indefinitely on the Queen’s Commission. General proclamations had been posted on every tree and tavern wall announcing that Her Majesty was paying good silver to any man in possession of a wagon prepared to do his patriotic duty. That could only mean one thing. Weasel put it in words.

“It’s war for sure, Halfbreed. They would not be doing all this hiring if it was not. There will be supplies to carry. I think I’ll pay the Quartermaster a visit.”

Perhaps he was thinking that where there were government contracts there would be money to be made or perhaps he still had hopes of organising a good drinking session. So far, despite his best efforts, Weasel had not been able to get either the advance he had hoped for or permission to leave camp. It seemed like the Quartermaster was busy using his influence elsewhere. The Barbarian swaggered after him.

There was still some light left. Most of the older men wanted back to their beds or their wives. The younger ones wanted to head down to the stream to flirt with the free girls. Rik begged off and headed to his billet, stripped and changed into his old tattered, patched uniform. He knew he should find one of the camp girls and pay her to wash his dirty tunic and britches, but there was nobody there, so he took the sack of books out of its hiding place, opened one volume and inspected it.

It was hand-written, in classic Exalted runes in a small crabbed hand. As he flicked through it he noticed that some parts were comprehensible, written in the vernacular. Others were written in High Exalted, a language favoured by scholars and wizards, and still others in the runes and hieroglyphs of the Elder Races. This volume had an air of great antiquity. The leaves seemed very dry, as if they might turn to dust at any moment.

A feeling of despair settled on him. How was he ever going to decipher this? His grasp of the vernacular was reasonable. Koralyn had taught him how to cipher it out well enough, claiming it was invaluable knowledge for a thief. Rik wished the former master of his first gang were here now. He wished he were still alive. Koralyn had been a wicked old bastard but he was the closest thing to a father Rik had ever known.

Rik had never really known his whole story, but he knew that Koralyn was well-educated for a thief in the slums of Sorrow and had not always lived there. In his youth he had travelled far before ending up becalmed, as he called it, in the City of Thieves. He claimed most consistently to have come from Harven Greatport in Northern Kharadrea, but then he had claimed to have come from a hundred different places at different times.

Being a compulsive liar was an occupational hazard for a thief, as he had always said himself. It had not saved him in the end though, and he had gone to an inglorious death, weeping and begging for mercy on the Lowgate Gallows. Rik had gone to watch the hanging, his head full of tales of daring escapes such as highwaymen always made in the chapbooks. He had considered all manner of rescue plans himself, but of course, they had never happened.

Old Koralyn had come out surrounded by a squad of soldiers, accompanied by the hangman in his black mask. There was no way anyone could rescue him. No one had even wanted to, not even some of his friends who were present. The whole thing had the atmosphere of a public holiday. The street and square were crowded, as were all the nearby windows. There were even boys sitting on the roofs and chimney pots. They had all come to witness the death, to look on at that primal mystery, the transition of one man out of life.

The hangman had read the text from the Scriptures about the Queen’s Justice and the punishment of the guilty. Koralyn had raved and begged without dignity. Rik had been so angry about it that he had half-wished the old man dead himself, and had felt guilty about it ever afterwards. Then Koralyn has taken the Drop. His body had been cut down. His head was cut off and stuck on a pike over the Lowgate as a warning to other malefactors. The crowd, having chatted and eaten its way through this exemplary lesson in royal justice, had dispersed to the taverns. Always good for business, a hanging, an innkeeper in the square had told him.

Rik had learned no lesson that day. The hanging of someone he knew had scared him just enough so that he did not steal anything for several days, until his belly had started to growl and he felt dizzy. He had snatched a watch from an old lawyer’s pocket as the man had taken him into a back alley looking for a blowjob. He had almost not gotten away with it. After that he had fallen in with the Old Witch and her gang of youthful pickpockets and thieves, and his education had really begun.

Rik shook his head. All of this reminiscing was getting him nowhere. He knew he was merely putting off the task at hand. He needed to make a start on this book if he was ever to learn something from it. If you don’t start, you can’t finish as the Old Witch had always said. It was getting dark but that did not bother him. His eyes had always been good in the dark.

He tried another one of the books, flipped open the first page, and began laboriously to read.

To begin with the book was not as bad as Rik had feared. At least it was written in contemporary Exalted. There were many words he could not follow, many sorcerous terms he did not recognise, but the gist of things was clear, and not a little disappointing. The book was indeed a sorcerer’s journal, a combination of diary and commonplace book. It contained his thoughts on his art, on what he had learned, and how he thought he should proceed. There was a great deal of mathematical notation and a few astronomical diagrams.

The mage wrote about the way sorcerous power ebbed and flowed at certain times, that these times could be deduced from the position of the stars and planets, and, more importantly, that certain entities could be contacted much more clearly under these specific conditions. It all made a certain sort of sense to Rik. If you had more power at certain times, working magic should be easier, he thought.

He was disappointed that there were no spells, incantations or inscriptions of easy magical use. The chapbooks were always full of those, and of young apprentices unwisely summoning demons. At the moment the only thing he could imagine unwisely summoning from reading this book was a headache.

He flicked through the other two books and they were worse. He could make out some of the words. There were lots of strange glyphs depicting spider-like beings which reminded him uncomfortably of the thing in the mine. There were references in the margin in the familiar crabbed hand to Uran Ultar, the Spider God, demon-wizard of the ancients, that made him more uncomfortable yet. It brought home to him that these books dealt in forbidden knowledge, and that knowledge had been forbidden for a good reason. Rik had never heard anything good of Uran Ultar, only shadowy tales of spidery demons, devoured souls and evil magic. The book referred to him sometimes as the Scuttler in the Shadows, at others as the Weaver between Worlds. They were not reassuring terms.

He put the books back in their leather sack and put the sack back in its place. He lay on his back and stared at the ceiling and wondered about the wisdom of what he was doing. There was knowledge in these books but it was knowledge that endangered his soul if all that the temple brothers had told him was true. He was not entirely sure he believed any of that any more. His faith, so strong and simple as a child, had been chipped away by the life he had led. He had been around death enough to consider agreeing with those philosophers who thought that maybe the body was just a machine of sorts, one that ceased to function when important parts were broken. It was not a comforting thought, that this was the only life he would ever have and that when it ended, as it might at any moment, he was gone. He could understand why the priests objected to that idea so much, calling it a council of despair straight from shadow. If he did have a soul, he wondered, and these books held the power to change his life, was it worth risking that soul in pursuit of power? In theory the answer was simple. No. He was risking life eternal for nothing more than worldly gain.

Ah, but what if the priests were wrong, and what if the despairers were right? And what if these books pointed some other way to eternal life in this world? The priests of the Spider God were said to have had that secret. It was certain that some ancient wizards had known it. Even the Terrarchs confirmed that.

In his life he had done enough to get himself damned already according to the priests’ view of the world. There were few crimes he had not committed in his time in Sorrow and after. He had stolen, lied, killed, borne false witness, fornicated, committed adultery, and all before he was fifteen. The chances were that he was damned already. What did he have to lose? The scales had been stacked against him from the moment of his birth. Perhaps these books were the only chance to balance them he would ever get.

And he was curious. He wanted to know what was in them, to be privy to forbidden knowledge, to be in some ways like his unknown father, to steal the fire of the Exalted’s strange heaven.

All of which brought him to another thing. It was obvious that he did not have the training for this. The little bits of hedge lore he had picked up from the Old Witch had not prepared him for such work in any way. Whoever had written this book had possessed a great deal of education in a great many arts. He had a working knowledge of mathematics, astrology, alchemy, ancient pre-human lore, and a grasp of many languages. You could only pick that up at a University, or from being apprenticed to a wizard, or as a priest, perhaps all three.

Rik’s hopes of easy power and wealth had already been dashed. It was obvious the road to mastery would be a long one. Perhaps the best plan after all was to try and sell the books to some scholar who might have a use for them. The one who had written it had managed to summon and communicate with an Elder World demon. His knowledge would be useful to the right person.

Rik shook his head and rose to a sitting position. He was not going to give up so easily. He was going to continue with what he had started for as long as he could, and see what he could decipher. These books were his first real contact with true lore, with the great world of high sorcery. They were not like the cheap herb-books and star charts and books of purported love charms you could pick up in the book markets of Sorrow. This was the real thing. They had been the possession of an actual wizard, and he must be able to learn from them. There had to be something useful there. He refused to believe there could not be.

Just as the thought crossed his mind Leon stuck his head inside the door. “Time to eat,” he said. “Looks like the cooks have excelled themselves today.”

“What is it? Boiled boot sole with a bowl of sewage soup?”

“Even better! It’s the Stew!”

“The cook is a sadist. He waits until we are ravenous and then serves boiled vomit.”

“I think I would prefer boiled vomit.”

Rik rose from the bed, and strode out the door. The air was cold. A breeze blew down from the mountains, and he thought he caught a hint of moisture in it. A glance at the distant peaks showed them shrouded in cloud.

“Looks like rain,” Rik said.

“You think we’ll be heading off soon? They say the new General and his retinue are already here. They are hiring carts in the city for supplies. All the girls at the stream are talking about it. They don’t fancy hiking through the pass this early in the year.”

“I am sure the Terrarchs will take their feelings into consideration.”

“You really think we’re going then? Really?” Leon was as excited as a puppy playing with a rag.

“I don’t think they sent one of the high lord muck-a-mucks down here just for his health.”

“It’ll be the first time I have ever been out of the Realm.”

“For me too. We signed up together, remember?”

“What do you think of Sarah?” Rik was used to his old friend’s sudden changes of topic but he still found them annoying sometimes when he wanted to think.

“She’s pretty, but isn’t she going with Bear?”

“She was but they had a falling out. She says she’ll go out walking with me if I ask. Ana told me she likes me.”

“I thought you were sweet on that town girl, whatshername?”

“Bethia. I was but she took up with a hussar. Says he has a destrier and will take her riding.”

“I am sure he will, just not in the way she thinks.”

“I don’t like the hussars, neither does Handsome Jan. He says they are stealing all the girls. The girls think they have nicer uniforms than ours.”

“They have destriers,” said Rik. “Destriers cost money. Girls like men with money.”

“You are a cynical bastard, Rik,” said Leon. “Sabena certainly changed you.”

Rik had no desire to talk about that particular betrayal. It sometimes amazed him how raw it still made him feel. He did not know what annoyed him more, the fact that she had suckered him so easily, or the fact that he had so desperately wanted to believe her love for him was real even when he had proof that it was not.

“It amazes me that you are not cynical. Are you sure you are from Sorrow?”

“You know I am,” said Leon.

“It was a joke.”

“Yes, of course, I knew that.”

“Come on, let’s get something to eat. They say the cooking is not nearly so good in times of war.”

“Maybe we can get the cook shot as an enemy spy. We can say he is trying to poison us poor soldiers.”

“He could probably cause more casualties than an enemy brigade.”

Laughing they went to their meal.

Chapter Thirteen

Sardec sat in his chamber in the Inn, wrestling with his dissatisfaction. He was tired from a long day of supervising his troops. The Foragers were an unruly bunch at the best of times and keeping them hard at their practise manoeuvres had been difficult. Plus his wounds still ached despite all the spells of the regimental wizards and all the alchemy of the regimental healers. He knew he was not at his full strength. At least he was in better condition than poor Master Severin.

He was not entirely happy with the Colonel's practise of continuing the training exercises through the period of Mourning. It seemed to him almost blasphemous although he could understand the reasoning behind it. With war coming they needed to be ready.

Servants had already cleaned his room. All his gear was in place. He had checked, because you could never be sure with humans. The only thing missing was his sword, which was still being purified by the priests. He found that he missed it badly. It was a link with his House and family and their glorious heritage, a reminder of all the things he had to live up to, and which he feared he could not. A prayer crystal on a black ribbon dangled above the window, part of someone’s attempt at Mourning Time decoration.

Sardec had brought a small platter of bread and cheese and a jug of water with him. He took the Mourning seriously, and felt disgusted that some of his brother officer’s did not. It was a link with the Old World of Al’Terra and the high history of the Terrarchs. Briefly he took time to consider what it represented, the death of a world and of an angel and the casting out of the last remains of a mighty people, into exile on a strange world of demon — worshipping barbarians.

Mourning Time taught an important lesson to his people. It showed that though the Terrarchs had been beaten they had risen again triumphant. The royal island of Talassa might have disappeared below the sea, carrying all its shining towers with it, and the Princes of Shadow and the corrupt hordes that followed them might have driven the Terrarchs from their lands and destroyed their whole civilisation, but his folk had passed through the ancient portals that linked the worlds, and found a new home here on Gaeia. A mere ten thousand of them had conquered the short-lived humans and taught them the ways of true civilisation. They had built a new nation under strange skies, the mightiest empire this world had seen since the time of the Elder Races.

He thought about Lord Azaar. There was someone who truly understood what it meant. The Lord of Battles had walked the glades of Al’ Terra and fought beside the Three Hundred before the Fall. He had fought his long private war against the assassin cult of the Shadowblood who killed his family. He had seen the blessed light of the Eternal Realm and spoken to the Dragon Angel Adaana herself. He had planned the conquest of the ancient barbaric human empires, and he had led the armies of the Scarlet Queen during the Great Schism that had brought down the First Empire. When the Dark Empire had risen in the East following that hell-bitch Arachne, he had fought its armies to a standstill. His was a name that still struck fear into the hearts of Talorea’s enemies.

The General’s dispatch to this small army was not too surprising. Even if it was war, this force was not going to be the main spearhead. This was not a glorious post at all, as Sardec was in a position to know. Sending the General who had planned and executed the Conquest here could be construed as something of an insult but everyone knew Azaar was out of favour at the court. The young Queen was no longer so young, and she no longer needed her old guardian, tutor and protector. Perhaps it was as his mother claimed and Arielle was asserting her independence by casting Azaar and Asea and others among the First from the light of her favour. That was natural Sardec thought. He could understand why she would want to sweep away the Old Guard and replace them with more modern advisors.

There was a knock on the door.

“Enter,” he said. One of the serving wenches came in. She was a pretty girl as human’s went, plump and cheerful. Tonight she wore only a thin shift and he was uncomfortably aware that the curves of her body were very visible below it. Suddenly the room felt strangely warm and his mouth felt strangely dry. He strove to remember her name and found that he could not.

“What is it?” he asked. She made a small curtsey and looked up into his eyes. Her lips parted invitingly. Was she coming on to him? Her eyes went down and a faint flush came to her cheeks. He found his own eyes drawn downwards to her decolletage. He wrenched them away, feeling a little embarrassed and oddly, guiltily aroused himself.

“What is it, girl?” She held out a silver plate to him and he noticed there were letters on it.

“Came in with the courier, sir. They are for you.” Her voice was low and husky and he thought he heard a note of invitation in it. He knew that Jazeray and the others often had their way with these wenches, but such pleasures were beneath him. Still…

“Leave it on the table then,” he said, his voice gruffer than he intended. She walked slowly and sensuously across to the table, put the plate down, and then turned to look at him. Again there was that frank, measuring, inviting look.

“Will that be all, sir?” she asked. He found his eyes flickering momentarily towards the bed. She noticed his look and made a small involuntary movement in that direction. Not wanting to be misinterpreted, he said, too hastily.

“That will be all, girl. You may go.” She looked at him oddly.

“Are you sure, sir?” A small flash of anger passed through him, as well as an odd reluctance. Who was she to question her betters?

“Of course, I am sure, girl.” Slowly and almost reluctantly she went. And almost as reluctantly he let her go. Once she was gone, he loosened his tunic and slumped down in his chair. He felt ashamed and embarrassed. For a brief moment there, he had felt the urge to throw her on the bed and bury himself in her, to rut like a beast with one of the lower orders.

That was not seemly, he thought, though it had been happening to him more and more of late. Such feelings were common to Terrarch males of his age, the thirties were famously a dangerous time, but he found the whole concept disgusting. He pushed the thought from his mind. He got up stalked about the room and then eventually picked up the letters.

He allowed himself to sit down on the bed, and begin to work through the mail. He crossed his legs neatly as he lounged back in his armchair. His thoughts drifted back to their new commander. Perhaps Azaar really had lost his gifts as some claimed. Certainly his long slide from the Queen’s favour showed that he had lost his grasp of the basics of Terrarch politics. He had fallen a long way from the pinnacle of prestige he had once occupied.

Sardec shook his head. As his father always said, gossip was the curse of the Terrarchs. We are a race with too much time on our hands and too much malice in our hearts. It was an old joke. Put three Terrarchs together and you will get five conspiracies. His experience in the army had allowed him to see the truth in that.

There were several letters. He put the one from his sister aside for later reading, and opened the one from his father at once. It began with the customary formalities, his father was a stickler for them, and then got to the meat of the matter;

My son, good news indeed. My old friend, the Lord Azaar, has been appointed commander of your Regiment and its associates in the new army of the South Eastern Provinces. I had word from Count Urazel at court this morning, and it appears our beloved Queen, may she reign ten thousand years, placed her signature on the document this morning. I have written to my old comrade and requested a place for you on his staff. I feel sure that this will be granted.

I cannot stress enough how you must do your utmost to serve your new commanding officer, and not alone because that is every officer’s duty. He is worthy of every respect, and of your emulation. I will be most happy if you take him as your model in all things. Pay particular attention to his thoughts on matters military, my son, for Azaar is the finest General the Exalted ever fielded, and there is much to be learned from a commander who has never lost a battle. You may find some of his thinking perhaps a little unfashionable, but Azaar has always been a committed Scarlet, and I feel it is speaks well of him that he remains so even when it is no longer the orthodoxy of the hour.

I feel we are approaching a time when being Scarlet will find its way back into favour. War with the Blues is coming, and that always rallies our people to the Scarlet cause. It is my sincerest wish that you excel in service to my old friend. My one regret is that my damnable illness prevents me from taking up arms once more and fighting at your sides.

Sardec put the letter down and cursed his luck. It had been dated more than three weeks before and doubtless held up by some delay or other. If it had arrived sooner he might have gained some greater advantage from it. He would have known of the General’s appointment before his brother officers and thus been able to steal a march on them. As it were, most of them had probably visited the Lady Asea and began lobbying for staff positions with her. Doubtless Azaar would listen to the opinions of another of the First.

He had no great faith that Azaar would grant his father’s request merely for the sake of their old friendship. There were too many families at court who had much greater influence than his own, and the General could gain a great deal of political capital by allocating choice posts to them. If he could have met Azaar in person perhaps he might have persuaded him. So far no word had come of any new appointments. It looked like the General would be doling them out once he arrived.

Even Sardec's trip to the hills and the wound he had taken had conspired against him. It had delayed his sending his card to Asea. It could not be helped, he thought, even as he cursed it. He had been performing his duties, and those had to come first. It left a bitter taste in his mouth. No use crying over spilled wine, he thought, and considered his father’s words.

The first part was obviously a politely worded instruction to flatter the General, for imitation was always the sincerest form of that. He considered the second part of the message with regard to Azaar’s well-known political stance. What was his father trying to tell him? He still had sources at the court of the Amber Throne. He obviously expected war and a long one. He was basically instructing Sardec to hitch his star to that of the General. It might work. In a time of war, a successful field commander would find himself in favour at court no matter what colour his politics were, and those on his staff with him. There was no doubt his father expected Azaar to be successful and why not? He always had been before. There never had been any doubt of his genius on the field of battle.

Sardec considered this from all angles. Perhaps Azaar had seen better days. All of his real fighting had been done in the age of dragons, and before the coming of these damnable black powder weapons. He was a hero from the great days of truesteel and sorcery. Perhaps he would fair less well in this new era of cannons and rifled muskets. In any case, Sardec decided his father’s advice was worth taking. Certainly with the Lord of Battles in command there would be no shortage of fighting, and no shortage of opportunities to seek to add to his father’s glorious legacy.

Satisfied he had divined his father’s meaning, he gave his attention to the rest of the letter which contained a great deal of family news, most of it of little interest to Sardec. Two of his cousins were betrothed. His brother Magnus was doing brilliantly at court at least according to his own letters to their father. This did not surprise Sardec. Magnus has always had a very high opinion of himself. His sister Elena’s studies at the College of Magisters were going well.

Sardec noted that his mother had dragged herself away from her latest lover long enough to send her best wishes and let him know she was still negotiating his marriage to the eldest of the Kasaki clan. The matter of the bride price remained to be settled. He knew that would likely remain the case for some time yet. They had been discussing it for a decade. Only the news that old Sathrax had hatched a clutch of eggs excited him. It was the first time that had happened in decades. More than that, it seemed all of the hatchlings were doing well. It looked like the line of the great dragon Sardenys would not become extinct after all. It was an omen, perhaps of better times ahead. His father concluded by wishing him well in the old formal fashion.

He opened the letter from his sister next. It contained some news of her studies at the College of Magisters, and a warning concerning the portents all the fashionable astrologers were discovering. It seemed now was a particularly dark and threatening time for the Realm, and for their House, and for him as well by all accounts. His stars had entered a particularly ominous house. His recent encounter with the spider demons seemed to confirm the truth of that, at least.

It mentioned that her spell-craft was advancing with great speed, although the same could be said of all members of her class, so she felt no great pride in the matter. That was odd, Sardec thought. Although sorcery had never been his forte he had been given to understand that in recent generations the aptitude of Terrarch wizards had been greatly lessened. Certainly the older Terrarchs always managed to give that impression. Perhaps, this was just a particularly gifted crop of new mages, or perhaps it was an omen too, like the dragons, that the good old times were returning.

Elena went on to tell him all the family gossip that his father would not. His youngest sister Mariel was apparently still causing a scandal among the youths of the capital which, considering the decadence of the place, spoke of quite a talent for it. Elena concluded with a few enquiries about his health and his career, and he made a note to answer them as quickly as he could.

He summoned a servant and wrote a note to the Lady Asea requesting permission to call on her, and then made ready for bed. His head hurt and Mourning Time was not the time to go back to losing money at cards to his brother officers.

From downstairs he could hear the sound of chamber music. Some of them were playing instruments as others played cards. The likes of Jazeray and Paulus and Marcus would be drinking and joking and getting ready to visit the brothels of the town. Not for them the contemplation of the mighty deeds of their forefathers at this most significant of times. Sardec felt they were symbolic of how far his people had fallen. Still, if he was honest with himself, he admitted that he found that thought of the bawdy houses contained a certain piquancy, but now was not the time for it.

He opened the Book of Prophets and read several pages about the Last Days of Al’ Terra before he fell asleep. His dreams were troubled and whispered of cataclysm. In many of them, strange spidery demons gnawed at the roots of the world.

Chapter Fourteen

“It took long enough,” said the Barbarian watching Weasel emerge from the Quartermaster’s tent with the papers clutched in his hand.

“But it’s done,” said Weasel with some satisfaction, brandishing a handful of signed chits. “I got the passes.”

Rik was impressed. For several days there it looked like they were not going to get out of camp at all. The rumours of the appearance of the new commander appeared to have put all the Terrarchs on their mettle. There had been plenty of spit and polish, plenty of mock assaults, plenty of bayonet practice even for the Foragers.

It all seemed designed to keep the men too tired to work or worry about their lack of time off. Every night since their return had seen them turn in at the first drum roll. Their rations had consisted of bread and water and hard cheese. It was the Mourning Time, and the humans were being made to suffer through it just as much as the Exalted. So far Rik had not even found much time to look at the books. He had been so tired that he had most often fallen asleep after the drum sounded. Curiosity burned within him but he had not found the means of satisfying it.

“How did you get them?” Leon asked. His pipe was back in his mouth. It was still unlit as he chewed away at the stem. Weasel gave him a disparaging look.

“You should know better than ask such questions. All you need know is that we have passes with Lieutenant Jazeray’s signature on them, stamped with the regimental seal. And you can show your gratitude by buying me beer all night.”

Rik wondered what sort of hold the Quartermaster could have on Lieutenant Jazeray. Rumour had it the Terrarch numbered a passion for gambling among his several vices. He had run up debts. The Quartermaster would be quick to take advantage of those. Rik wondered at his using up some of his influence just to get them a pass. Perhaps he owed Weasel a favour. Maybe it was some sort of reward. Every man who had got a pass had done something for the Quartermaster in the past.

As they walked towards the edge of the camp, Weasel took Rik aside and whispered, “I have found some leads on selling the books, Halfbreed.”

Rik looked at him in shock. “You sure that’s wise?”

“The Inquisition are starting to interrogate the hill-men we brought in. The sooner we get rid of the things, the happier I will be.”

Rik could find no way to disagree with that statement but inside he was reeling. He had hoped to hold on to the books for at least the coming campaign and to have time to study them and divine their secrets. It seemed the poacher had other ideas. Rik considered his response carefully. He did not want to give Weasel any idea of his real thoughts.

“Who is it?”

“I will be talking to some guys tonight, in Mama Horne’s. I’ll have a better idea then.”

“So nothing is certain yet?”

“Not yet. But who knows, we might get them off our hands in the next few days. They are starting to make me feel damn uncomfortable.”

That was quite an admission for Weasel to make. As far as Rik knew he was utterly fearless. If Weasel was uneasy, maybe he should be terrified, he thought.

Part of him wondered if there was some way to keep his partners from selling the books, at least until he was done with them. Part of him felt like a traitor for even considering such a thing. Could he really put his own dark interests before that of his friends?

He already knew the answer to that.

Rik, Weasel and the Barbarian hitched a ride on one of the supply carts going to Redtower. The carter had just come from hiring on and seemed well pleased with the prospect of renting his vehicle for the campaign season. He was just one of many. Even a small army on the move took a lot of provisioning.

Leon joined them at the edge of the camp along with Hopper, Toadface and Handsome Jan. In addition to the passes, Weasel had managed to get an advance from the Quartermaster at reasonable interest, against the gold piece they had been promised for the head of the wizard by Master Severin. It seemed the wizard's debt would be honoured by his estate.

It was time for a big night on the town. After all, if the Regiment was moving out they might not get another one. In the distance the beacon atop the temple’s dragonspire lit the sky over the town. The glowing windows of Lady Asea’s palace rose almost as high, and gave the monstrous red tower a brooding presence that seemed to challenge that of the temple.

As the cart rattled along the muddy road Handsome Jan preened himself.

“You smell like a whorehouse tart,” said Weasel. The cologne Jan used was almost as overpowering as Toadface’s body odour.

“It gets me the women,” said Handsome Jan complacently. “They love it.”

“That’s because they think you are one of them and want to be your friend.”

“You’re just jealous of my success with the ladies.”

Weasel laughed. Oddly enough for such an ugly man he was amazingly popular with the tavern girls when he wanted to be. The Barbarian shook his head and said; “Jealous of you? The girls will take one look at my manly form and pass you effete southerners by.”

No one disagreed. Arguing with the Barbarian could be dangerous. His moods changed unpredictably. Rik suspected that the enormous quantities of alcohol he consumed had something to do with it.

“I know I am going to find me a woman tonight,” said Handsome Jan.

“You’ll be followed home by sailors,” said Weasel. “Wearing that stuff.”

“We’re a long way from the sea,” said the Barbarian, getting the wrong end of the stick as usual.

“The ladies love it,” said Handsome Jan. He paused to admire his profile in his bit of broken mirror.

“I can touch my nose with my tongue,” said Toadface. He did it just to prove his point. “The ladies love that as well.”

“That was an image I could have lived without having in my head,” said Rik.

“I hear that our new General will arrive soon,” said Leon.

“You and the rest of the camp,” said Toadface cheerily. His nature was almost as pleasant as his face was ugly.

“They say it’s Lord Azaar.”

Rik had heard that too. It had spread round the camp like wildfire. That sort of thing always did. Azaar had been the main slaughterer of the human tribes during the Conquest. He had been feared almost as much as the Old Queen and he had been just as famous. His name was part of ancient legend. Mothers would terrify naughty children with it.

“Why would the Lord of Battles be sent here?”

“In order to lead us to inevitable victory, I imagine,” said Weasel sardonically.

“He’s not taken to the field since the Schism,” said Rik.

“You know what the Exalted are like, Rik, bone bloody idle,” said Weasel.

“That’s over a century ago,” said Rik.

“I rest my case.”

“He must be over a thousand years old. Maybe older. He was one of those who came here from the Eternal Realm. The First they call themselves.”

“I hope he’s not senile,” said Weasel.

The Barbarian shook his head and said, “A thousand years, think about it. A thousand years of drinking and eating and whoring. I think I would like to live forever.”

“Perhaps you would get tired of it,” said Leon.

“Speak for yourself.” The cart hit a bump in the road and began to tip over sideways. They all shifted their weight to keep it steady. No one wanted to be tipped through the hedge and into a ditch. They were silent for a few minutes, each man lost in private contemplation.

“You really think it’s him,” asked Leon. “The Lord of Battles, I mean, not just somebody else with the same name. It might be his son or one of his family.”

“Never heard of any other General by that name,” said Weasel.

“Nor me,” said Rik. “Must be something pretty special happening if they are bringing that bloodthirsty old cripple out of retirement.”

“Think there’ll be a lot of plunder on this campaign then, Weasel?” asked Toadface.

“There always is if you just know where to look. Stick with me, boys, and you’ll be rich yet.”

“Just like you are,” said Rik sourly. He was annoyed about Weasel’s plan to sell the books, and his anger was finding its way into his speech. Be calm, he told himself. You don’t want Weasel getting suspicious of you at this stage.

“The taxes on my estates cost me a lot of money,” said Weasel with a grin.

“I can think of something else that will be taxing us in half an hour,” said Hopper gloomily. “The excise man when we buy a barrel of Morven Rose.”

As they approached the town, fetid slums surrounded them, cheap, jerry built tenements that looked like they could be pushed over by a strong breeze. Rik reckoned they were just like their equivalent in Sorrow, full of peasants thrown off their freeholds by the enclosures on the great estates.

Lots of lean and hungry people in threadbare clothes stared at them as if they might represent a meal. Here and there a few tatty black Mourning flags dangled on clothes lines strung between buildings. Most of the shops were tiny cave-like things in the fronts of the tenements, selling second hand clothes, cheap foods, watered ale, matches, firewood, and the other necessities of life for those who could afford them.

Rik felt momentary unease. Soldiers were not always popular in the slums of Sorrow. Folk had long memories of riots being put down. No one here, though, had any recent memories of such things and were just glad to see someone spending.

People filled the streets. It was their playground, their living room and their theatre, all the entertainment most of them would ever get or could ever afford. Young couples walked together, arms linked, the girls with Mourning Time black ribbons in their hair, the boys wearing their temple best jackets and black armbands.

A daring showman played his accordion while a small and mangy bear did a lumbering shuffle that was meant to be a dance. Puppeteers put on shows by lantern light. Pie-sellers pushed forward the trays dangling from their necks, hoping to convince the short sighted to buy their filthy wares. Old women smoked pipes and gossiped on tenement steps. Drunks lay in the gutter while ragged children went through their pockets and then skipped away. Rouged women thrust their hips at strangers and sometimes disappeared hand in hand with them down shadowy alleys.

“It’s nice to see the common folk taking Mourning Time so seriously,” said Weasel.

Rik was not so sure he had good reason to be cynical. If you looked closely you could see that there were people in their best clothes heading to temple, and there were as many buyers for religious tracts and prayer crystals as for liquor bottles and pies. The theatres were ostentatiously closed, their doors sealed with ribbons of black cloth. Their managers sat gloomily by the doors, lest someone should steal even this. Some mothers were hustling their children indoors and hushing them.

Still things had changed. Rik could remember the Old Witch talking about her youth, when humans had to be silent all day during Mourning Time, and indoors all night unless they got special dispensation from a priest. Watchmen had enforced that law, and the stocks and whipping posts had been full of those stupid enough to disobey. There were some that saw such things as proof that the world was getting worse. Rik thought that it meant it was in some ways getting better.

He found himself relaxing a little. There was something about these streets that reminded him of Sorrow. It was the bustle and the commerce and all the little details of street life; the lanterns dangling on brass arms from street corners and in shop windows; the link boys with their sputtering torches leading wealthier citizens home. Merchant’s palanquins and their escorts of bully boys shoved their way through the throngs. And of course there was the constant singing of drunks and glee clubs and beggars trying to earn a copper. The scent of open sewers and incense and cheap perfume battled with the smell of pies and wine in his nostrils.

He saw a young woman inspecting a dress inside a second hand shop, holding it up to her bosom. Closer inspection showed it to be a Terrarch officer’s dress coat too narrow at the shoulders for a man, but just right for a tall girl. She caught his glance, looked modestly away and then looked up again just to make sure he was still looking, by which time the cart had moved on.

Other things reminded him of Sorrow. The hulking bruisers who lounged in doorways and alley mouths and studied passers by the way wolves studied herds of cattle looking for the weak ones. One of them saw him looking and glared and Rik was suddenly glad he had a loaded pistol thrust in his belt and a knife in his boot. Beside him the Barbarian caught the glance and thought it was meant for him.

“You looking at me?” he shouted. “Or are you chewing a brick? Either way you will lose some teeth.”

It was an old favourite line of his and he shouted it with obvious relish. Taking in the Barbarian’s size and obvious confidence, the bruiser spat on the muddy street and disappeared up a side alley into a courtyard. Rik put his hand on the Barbarian’s shoulder and whispered the magic word beer to restrain him.

The cart carried them through the gates in the old walls of Redtower. Watchmen checked the driver’s pass, and inspected the soldiers sullenly.

“Regimental business, for the Quartermaster,” said Weasel. The old Sergeant of the watch said something to the others in a low voice and they were let pass without further challenge. The Quartermaster’s name was always a talisman. He had his finger in most of the criminal pies in town.

Tall, old buildings leaned overhead blocking out the evening sky. The streets became so narrow that you could reach out from the back of the cart and touch the walls. Rik slipped the carter a copper and they got down. This was the really bad part of town. No money had been spent here on upkeep. It was an area that was said to be fever-ridden, and ill-omened and not even those wealthy merchants and factors who normally paid extra to live within the walls close to the mansions of the Terrarchs wanted to live here. Instead it had decayed like an old whore riddled with pox. Even the buildings had a weak, crumbling, diseased look. Patches of damp soiled the flaking plasterwork. A mouldy smell filled the air. They passed huge old brick buildings that had once been warehouses and were now transformed into the worst sort of taverns, huge dance halls and brothels.

Normally these would have been doing a roaring trade, but tonight because of Mourning Time it was quiet. They were going to have to go a lot deeper into the Pit to find what they were looking for.

Rats scampered along the streets, moving from midden heap to midden heap, dancing across the open sewers. Gangs of furtive youths studied them as they approached. They were the same the world over. Many a night he had fled from such bravoes through the back alleys of Sorrow.

Weasel hailed a linkboy and the torchbearer approached. He was a local youth and Rik guessed he must have some sort of arrangement with the local boss, to work here unmolested. Weasel slipped him a coin and said; “The Headsman’s Axe.”

The boy lit a torch and moved with confidence through the darkened alleys. They streamed along behind him, keeping their hands close to their weapons. They were all more or less sober still and they all felt the menace around them.

The lad led them through an archway and into a large courtyard. A midden heap the size of a small hill filled its centre. All around, the walls of a vast decaying mansion leaned closer. It was one of those fine old houses that had once belonged to some wealthy man, and was now endlessly sub-divided and sub-let. Rik listened to the sounds from within. Just from the little he overheard as they passed he knew that lovers were quarrelling, a man was beating his wife, two whores were fighting over a customer and a drunk was protesting his undying fidelity to a woman who quite obviously did not believe him. Music sounded too, in defiance of the Mourning Edicts.

Suddenly the linkboy stood to one side and indicated they should do the same. Rik soon understood why. A party of young Terrarchs and their twenty strong bodyguard moved past. The slumming nobles were immaculately dressed and their sharp perfumes cut through the stench like a truesilver blade through a rotten fruit. They did not so much as glance at the Foragers as they went by, although their bodyguard did, giving them a quick competent appraisal.

“Looks like Solace came early for some of those boys,” said Weasel. Bitterness and hatred twisted in Rik’s gut. Doubtless his father had been like one of those careless semi-immortals. Perhaps he was even among them. Rik could never be sure. He would not look any different today than he had those twenty odd years ago. The Exalted aged slowly if at all.

“Probably visiting Mother Dagon’s,” said the Barbarian. “What I would not give to go there? Wish I could afford it.”

“Don’t we all,” said Toadface. Mother Dagon’s was a famous brothel where the girls were the most beautiful in the province, and trained in every manner of depravity by their Madame who was said to be a Terrarch half-breed herself.

“Let’s not talk about what we can’t afford,” said Weasel. “Let’s do something about what we can.”

“I am all for that,” said the Barbarian. “Beer then a brothel.”

Chapter Fifteen

They pushed deeper into the maze of winding alleys and courtyards. Rik was glad the linkboy knew where he was going because he himself surely did not. He wondered if he would be able to retrace the way in daylight. In the thick darkness, and with all the booze, space seemed to have altered in an ominous way. This part of town had not seemed so large the last time he had passed through it.

The old mansions had been built over, around and on top of, until the whole Pit was a crazy tottering pile of firetraps and tumbledown. Thick wooden buttresses reinforced walls and half-blocked narrow alleys. Wooden bridges ran between ledges and windows high up in the sides of buildings. Lean-tos and shanties grew out of walls and partially blocked what once had been streets. New huts filled the space that had once been the gardens of mansions and created a crazy webbing of new lanes and alleys which flowed back into the courtyards of the older structures.

More people sat around these courtyards, women with powdered faces and dyed hair sat in several doorways in positions of splay legged invitation. A group of drunks encouraged two brawlers in a distant corner with cheers and jeers. In some upper floor, a group of musicians played a wild jig while revellers hooted and yelled. The air reeked of booze and cheap perfume and midden heaps. In one cave-like grogshop a pig roasted on a spit. A small dog trotted round and round in a circle to power the mechanism that kept it turning.

“Probably the dog’s next,” said Weasel. “If it knew what we knew it would not work so hard.”

“You obviously know something too,” said Toadface. “I’ve never seen you work hard.”

“And you’ll never catch me doing it,” said Weasel. “The Scarlet Queen does not pay me enough to.”

Rik noticed other groups of men entering through different archways. It looked like they were not the only soldiers disobeying the Mourning Time edicts. Some of the cavalrymen had managed to find their way here too, despite being relatively recent arrivals.

“Did not take them long,” said Weasel.

“Word of a good thing travels fast,” said the Barbarian, as the others disappeared through the door of the Headsman’s Axe. The entrance was through a small doorway within the arch itself. A lantern glowed over the doorway so you would know where it was. The roar of voices could be heard within. The smell of tobacco, roasting beef and booze slapped them in the face as soon as they walked in and headed down the stairs. The main bar was in a cellar, and you got to it by rickety wooden steps. Another flight of stairs on the far side of the cellar led up to the private rooms that could be rented by the hour.

“Home, sweet home,” said Weasel rubbing his hands together. His tattered uniform drooped around him, making him look more like a scarecrow than ever.

“Ale, Shugh!” bellowed the Barbarian to the landlord. “Five beers — and one each for the rest of the lads!”

Leon and Rik moved to grab a table in the corner. Shugh poured the beers. A couple of swift ones and Rik felt good. He smiled benevolently at his companions, raised his tankard and pledged; “Death’s Angels of The Seventh!”

“Best damn regiment in the Queen’s Army,” said the Barbarian as they clinked beers.

“Let’s not get all sentimental now, lads,” said Weasel, but even he seemed pleased. Leon looked at Rik and said, “It’s not like the old days in Sorrow.”

Through the magic of beer Rik could see that quite clearly. In the Regiment you had comrades who you could more or less trust, and who more or less looked out for each other. You had to. It was men against the Terrarchs. Back in Sorrow it had been dog eat dog. The big ones ate the little ones. You could trust nobody. Anybody would sell you out either for gold or to get themselves off the hook with the law or the big gangsters like Antonio or White Eye. Rik had not realised quite how bad it was till he got used to being in the Queen’s Army. It was what he had grown up with and it had taken him a long time to realise that life in the Regiment was not like life on Cheap Street.

“Shadzar, the Place of Sorrow,” said Weasel. “Now there’s a city. Everything a man could want all in one place.”

The Barbarian glanced around and caught the glances of some of the rouged women over by the bar. “Everything a man could want right here,” he said. “Except the clean mountain air of the Northlands.”

The girls made their way to the table. Rik did not recognise them from his previous visits. They were both young and pretty. Their makeup was inexpertly applied. Either they were country girls fresh in town or they wanted men to think they were. Growing up in Sorrow had made Rik cynical as well as cautious. That and Sabena. Her betrayal had cut him very deeply.

“Buy a girl a drink,” said one of them as she plumped herself down on the Barbarian’s knee.

“I’ll buy you two if you like,” said the Barbarian. “What will you do for me?”

“Trying to get me drunk and take advantage of me, eh?”

“I am sure that will be difficult,” said Weasel, producing a deck of cards and beginning to shuffle. “Who is in?”

“I’m Lena,” said the more forward of the two girls. She had dark hair and a sunburned complexion. She was pretty in an open-faced sort of way. The other girl hung back, and was shyer, or at least wanted to seem that way. “This is Kaye.”

Handsome Jan made room for Kaye next to him on the bench. Immediately he began to explain to her how attractive women found him. Kaye appeared to be doing her best to make him think she agreed. The ale kept flowing. Toadface was doing tricks with his tongue. Suddenly Weasel gave a start and took a second glance into a dark corner.

“Well, what have we here?” he said, rising from the table, leaving the cards on the table-top. Just in case there was trouble, Rik got up and followed him since the Barbarian seemed engrossed in his beer and his girl, and too busy to do his usual job of minding Weasel’s back.

Weasel made straight for the darkest corner of the cellar where a scared looking man drank alone. “I thought it was you,” he said. “Saw you coming back from the jakes.”

It took Rik a little time to recognise Vosh. The hill-man looked different, somehow more furtive and very pale. He flinched when Weasel spoke to him and fumbled at his pocket as if looking for a concealed weapon.

“It’s you,” Vosh said eventually and appeared by an effort of will to force himself to relax. From the glazed look in his eyes, Rik could tell he was very drunk.

“Who were you expecting, the Scarlet Queen? I have heard she sometimes pops in for a pint or two with the boys. Likes to see if she can find herself a likely lad to take back to the Amber Palace.”

“No. There are hill-men in town.”

“There are always hill-men in town. They come for the beer and the wine and the girls, as well as trade goods and bullets and powder.”

“You would know about that,” said Vosh, with a nasty twist of his mouth. “You and the Quartermaster.”

“Man can get his throat cut easy here in the Pit, Vosh. I would be careful about what I say if I were you.” That took all the wind out of Vosh’s sails. The defiance just spilled out of him leaving him looking deflated and very small.

“You should be careful too, Weasel,” Vosh said. “These are not just any hill-men. They were wearing purple plaid.”

“Am I missing something here?” said Rik.

“Blue plaid means they are of the Agante Clan,” said Weasel. “Same as our boy here.”

“So what?”

“So I am guessing that somebody knows who sold out our friends back in the mountains and has come looking to claim the blood debt. Am I right, Vosh?”

“That’s what I think.”

“So why should we be careful?”

“You don’t get it, do you, you half-breed bastard? Don’t think your kinfolk can save you.”

Rik was surprised by his own actions. He very casually pinned Vosh against the wall and began to slap him just hard enough to be insulting, not hard enough to do any real damage. “I’d be careful with my mouth if I were you, just like Weasel says.”

Weasel’s fingers bit into Rik’s shoulder as he pulled him away. For such a skinny man, he was surprisingly strong. Either that or Rik was drunker than he thought.

“I think what’s he’s trying to tell us, in his own charmless way, is that we are all marked by the blood debt.”

“You got it,” said Vosh. “Me because they think I sold them out for Exalted gold, you because you pulled the triggers on men who could not defend themselves.”

“Yes,” said Weasel. “That was wicked of us. No hill-man would ever do a thing like that.”

“Not the way you did. It’s one thing ambushing a man. It’s another killing men after setting demons on them.”

“We did something to offend your highly developed sense of honour then, did we?”

“Make jokes about it all you like, Weasel, but those men’s kin will follow you to the grave for vengeance.”

Weasel was looking thoughtful which worried Rik because it meant he was taking all this seriously. “Where did you see these men?”

“Here in the Pit today. I was just out for a breather when…”

“Did they see you?”

“No. I don’t think so. I ducked back in here, took a private room with one of the girls and left word I was not to be disturbed till evening.”

“Suddenly come into some cash have you?” Rik could guess where that came from. Doubtless the Exalted paid him a special bounty for leading them to the bandits.

“How do you know it was you they were looking for?”

“What else could it be?”

“Could just be your guilty conscience talking.”

“Could be, but I am taking no chances, and neither should you.”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Weasel. “Now, we’d better go. I’d invite you along but it’s a private party.”

“Don’t worry. I don’t need the company. Oh and Weasel, we have something we need to talk about?”

“I can’t imagine what that is.”

“Books.” Rik felt as if he had just been struck by lightning. His hand went automatically towards his knife. Weasel stood absolutely still. Rik could see death in his eyes.

“What do you mean?” Weasel asked, leaning closer until his face was almost pressed against Vosh’s.

“I was there when you two and your big friend found the books,” said Vosh. He was sweating but there was a drunken confidence in his voice.

“What books would those be?” asked Weasel. His tone was absolutely level.

“The wizard’s books. In the mine. I was there, after the fight. You didn’t see me, but I saw you. I heard you too.” Rik remembered that he thought he had heard something back then. It seemed he had.

“I sincerely hope you have not been shooting your mouth off about this,” said Weasel. “That really could be bad for your health.”

“All I want is a share of whatever you get. I am not greedy.”

Weasel gave him a cold smile. Suddenly he looked very frightening. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.”

Rik did not trust this little hill-man as far as he could throw him. He wondered if they could just push him outside now and stick a knife in him. A quick glance around convinced him there were way too many witnesses for that.

“Keep your mouth shut about those books until you hear from us,” said Rik. “If the Inquisition get us, we’ll make sure you burn too.”

Vosh paled. Sweat beaded his forehead. “Don’t worry about me, half-blood bastard. See you keep your own lips sealed.”

Rik fought down the urge to punch him. He wished he had not had so much to drink. He could feel events starting to spin completely out of control. Weasel pointed two fingers at Vosh’s forehead and made the gesture of a man firing a pistol.

“We’ll talk about this in the morning,” he said. “Until then see that you keep your mouth shut or the Inquisition will be the least of your worries.”

Rik looked around nervously. He was glad the hubbub of the tavern drowned out their voices. It would not do to have anyone hear them discussing the Inquisition.

Weasel began shouldering his way through the crowd back to their table.

“What did you make of that?” Rik asked.

“He’s full of shit and drunker than a barrelful of monkeys. Next thing he’ll be screaming about pink wyrms coming through the walls. One way or another we’ll need to keep his mouth shut.”

Weasel was silent for a long time when they got back to the table, and his silence made Rik uneasy. Rik glanced back over his shoulder. Vosh showed no sign of moving. Instead he was ordering another beer. He looked too scared to go out into the dark and Rik did not blame him. If he left the Axe now, he would have three Foragers on his trail and his life would not be worth a coin-shaver’s farthing.

The local apprentice lads glared at the Foragers. There was no love lost between them and the soldiers but things didn’t really start to go wrong until the other bluecoats took a hand. The trouble started innocently enough when Leon made another pledge to the Seventh, the best damn regiment in the Queen’s Service, and one of the newly arrived cavalrymen strode across to take exception to this. The Barbarian’s contribution to the debate was a swift punch to the rider’s face. The combat became close and general. The Foragers, the other soldiers and the local apprentice lads all getting involved in melee while the landlord and his seven stout sons started to heave the brawlers up the stairs and into the streets.

Somehow, not quite sure how he had got there, Rik found himself in the muddy roadway, shouting; “Keep your bloody ale. I never wanted it anyway.”

Moments later he discovered that Leon and Weasel were there with him. The Barbarian came crashing out a few heartbeats after that with two of the landlord’s sons, each muscled like a blacksmith holding his arms, Shugh’s massive arm locked round his throat, and a couple of the barmaids clawing at him for good measure. A swift shove saw him sprawling in the mud at Rik’s feet. He could hear titters of laughter from around the courtyard.

“Had enough, eh?” the Barbarian shouted. “I’ll take any ten of you soft southerners.” Rik began helping him up.

“That’s an excellent bruise you have there,” the Barbarian said.

“Almost as good as your black eye.”

“I say we take our custom elsewhere,” said Weasel. “They obviously don’t appreciate gentlemen of our refinement in the Axe these days.”

“What about Toadface and Handsome Jan,” said Leon.

“I saw them disappear upstairs with the two tarts when the fighting started.”

“Where’s Hopper?”

“He’s hopped it! What do you expect,” said Weasel.

“Bloody typical,” said the Barbarian. “They were exactly the same back in the mine. Serve them right that they won’t get a share of the treasure.”

Rik dug his elbow in the Barbarian’s ribs. Fortunately Leon had not noticed. He was too busy vomiting in the open sewer that ran down the middle of the narrow archway. Weasel leaned forward and whispered something urgently in the Barbarian’s ear. The big man nodded sheepishly and began to dust off his uniform. All he succeeded in doing was transferring the mud from his clothing to his hands.

“I think we should go back in there and sort those bastards out,” he said, apparently having given the matter deep consideration.

“I think we did that already. The last I remember you were banging that corporal’s head off the table. You had already pitched a couple of the others over the bar. Broke a few bottles of rotgut. I think that’s what the landlord really objected to.”

“After all the coppers we’ve spent in his tavern,” said the Barbarian. “There’s gratitude for you. There’s loyalty.”

“This is all very well,” said Weasel, “But it’s not getting us any closer to another drink. I say we pick up Leon and get on our way. The girl’s at Mama Horne’s will be waiting for us.” He gave Rik a wink. Rik had not forgotten what he had said about making some enquiries there earlier. Once again, he felt his dreams of sorcerous power slipping through his hands, but in his present drunken state he found he cared less.

“That sounds like a plan,” said Rik.

“Just wait till I get my hands on Hopper, Toadface and Handsome Jan,” said the Barbarian. “I’ll teach the bastards to run out on a good fight.”

Chapter Sixteen

Vosh finished his last cup of wine and wondered what he was going to do now. The booze had numbed him nicely and made it almost possible to forget his fears. He was not a coward. He had fought alongside his kin in the High Hills and seen his share of slaughter, but he was afraid now.

Well, not exactly afraid, he thought, more ashamed. It was not the prospect of pain and death that frightened him so much as the thought of having to face his kinsmen after taking the Queen’s betraying crown.

Vosh was a hill-man and proud of it, and that was one of those things hill-men just did not do. It was like finding your sister alone in a room with a man and then not cutting that man’s dick off and stuffing it in his mouth. Actually it was worse. He knew in his heart of hearts that no matter how bad that bastard wizard Alzibar had been, and no matter what Shadow worshipping shit he had been up to down in that mine, he should not have gone to the Terrarchs.

But what else could he have done, a small part of his mind argued? His own clan were so intimidated by the wizard and that bastard Zarahel that they were going right along with him, like a pack of fawning mongrels, and that was wrong.

So what if Alzibar had known all the ancient words of brotherhood that predated the coming of the Exalted to this world? So what if he had known of the prophesies of the Secret Priesthood and told of how they would be fulfilled and the ancient ways return?

Vosh still had not liked what they were doing. Herding those folk into the mine had been wrong. Giving those women and kids to demons had been wrong. A man was supposed to protect women and children. That was what Vosh believed anyway. And if the rest of his kind did not see things that way, it was them who had forgotten their honour, not him, no matter what anybody said.

He thought about Weasel. The bastard had not been so snotty when he found out that Vosh knew about the books. Vosh had been waiting back in the shadows down in the mine when he had heard them talking their treason. They had almost spotted him but he had just managed to duck back out of sight. Now he needed to think about what he was going to do with that information. Who would it be worth most to: the Terrarchs, their Inquisitors or the men themselves? He would have to be careful. The Foragers were too damn quick with their knives. He had better not plan on walking down any dark alleys any time soon. Of course, he would not do that. He was too smart.

The thought reassured Vosh and restored some of his confidence. He decided he would have one last cup of wine and then head for bed. He’d been drinking all day, and all day yesterday and this lowlander wine was strong stuff. He was starting to feel it.

He looked up and saw one of the loose women was smiling at him, as if she wanted to join him. He knew it was his money she really wanted but that was all right by him. He would get fair value in exchange. He made a small circling gesture with his hand, and she slid into the booth beside him. Almost immediately her hand was on his leg, moving up to massage his crotch. Nothing happened down there which was understandable given how much he’d had to drink.

“I could make you hard,” she said, wetting her lips with her tongue. There was a faint trace of the hills in her voice. It was not that surprising. Many women ran away from the harsh life of the mountains and became whores in the lowlands. By the Old Gods though, she was a beauty “I know a right good way to do that.”

He smiled and gestured for her to take a drink. She might well be able to, he thought. They would see to that later. “I want to finish my drink.”

“I can wait,” she said. Even in his drunken state Vosh noticed her looking round the room. He thought he knew exactly the calculation she was making. She could wait and get money from him, or she could find somebody else who would pay her right now. The rooms upstairs were rented by the hour. On a good night she could hope to turn several tricks. He knew by the way her smile widened when she looked back at him that she had come to the same conclusion as he had. Tonight was not a good night. It was the Mourning Time, and the brawl earlier had driven a lot of men out. There were too many girls chasing too few customers. “Take your time.”

“I always do,” he said with an insinuating leer. He was starting to feel better. With the girl’s warm presence so close, and the wine burning in his gut, the fear was receding a little. One thought brought it back. Those stupid bastard soldiers had got the sorcerer but they had missed Zarahel. He shook his head and cursed. The would-be Lord of the Clans was a worse madman even than the wizard. If Zarahel ever suspected who had betrayed him… Damn Foragers could not even take him with the help of a wizard.

It was not entirely their fault. The Prophet had the Old Gods on his side. Vosh had to admit that the Prophet frightened him. He, who feared nothing save the Princes of Shadow, had felt his bowels turn to water whenever he contemplated the Prophet. It was not natural that any man should study sorcery. That was Terrarch work.

“You’re looking very thoughtful,” said the girl. “Want to talk about it?”

“Nothing that would interest you, lass. Man’s thoughts.”

“I can think of one thing that interests me,” she said. Her knowing fingers slid up his thigh once again. He drained his glass of wine and gestured towards the stairs. “Lead the way,” he said.

Vosh lay on the bed, naked, drunk and stupefied with satisfaction. The girl had done all that she promised and then some. Considering the amount he had had to drink that was impressive. He gave her a couple of extra coppers to let her know how pleased he was. She nodded, a little tensely and got up to leave. As she dressed he noticed a small tattoo on her shoulder, one that looked vaguely familiar. Where had he seen it before? There was something about it that let him know he ought to be worried.

She saw his glance and dressed quicker, heading for the door swiftly. He felt a sudden surge of fear. Some of the clansmen, Zarahel’s closest followers had gotten tattoos like that. It might have been just coincidence but Vosh had lived too long by his wits to want to let it go at that.

“What’s your hurry?” he asked, trying to spring forward and grab her. Unfortunately the booze had slowed him and left him clumsy. His legs slid on the blanket and he fell sprawling to the floor. She opened the door and he caught sight of something that paralysed him with fear. A massive figure, robed and cowled like a priest stood there and behind him were a couple of familiar faces from the hills. It looked like he had been noticed after all. The girl must have been in on it, he thought. She had lured him up here.

Vosh opened his mouth to shout for help, but the cowled figure made a gesture and Vosh’s lips locked and strength seeped from his limbs. A swift cuff sent Vosh sprawling onto the bed. His head reeled from the power of the blow. Stars danced before his eyes. He felt drunkenly sick. Before he could do anything his limbs were restrained by brawny arms. He struggled with all the strength of his fear, but could make no headway. Suddenly, knowing he was doomed, he relaxed.

The robed man pulled back his cowl, revealing Zarahel’s face. What was he doing here, Vosh wondered? Why had he left the hills? Had he come all this way just to find Vosh?

“That’s better,” Zarahel said in his low, resonant voice.

Vosh sat up right and shot the girl an accusing glare. She had the good grace to look a little ashamed. Zarahel caught the look and glanced at the girl. “You may go, Marla,” he said conversationally. It had all the force of a command.

Vosh glanced desperately at his kin. He saw no mercy in their stony faces. Finally because he had to, he forced himself to look at Zarahel. The Prophet was a big man, not as big as that Barbarian idiot but just as broad across the shoulder, and thick around the arms. He radiated an aura of physical power, and something more, a confidence that bordered on insanity.

He was a good-looking man in a craggily fierce way. His blonde hair was wavy and only starting to grey, his jaw square and firm covered in a cropped salt and pepper beard. The grin he gave Vosh would have been engaging if slightly crazy had it not been for the eyes. There was something dead about them, something that told Vosh that he was just another piece of meat, to be carved up at whim. They were eyes that held not the slightest trace of human sympathy.

“I don’t have a lot of time,” Zarahel said in a tone that suggested Vosh was an old and valued friend. “So I shall make this quick. I want to know what became of Alzibar’s books.” He made a gesture. The numbness left Vosh’s limbs. He found he could move his lips again. He caught the scent of Zarahel then, and it sickened him. The smell was a strange sick thing compounded of old blood, rotten meat and something else, something worse.

“What books?” Vosh asked, confusion warring with his fear. His voice came out very quietly almost in a whisper. Vosh wondered if he could shout even if he wanted to. Best not try, he thought, Zarahel could cut him off with just a gesture.

“The books he kept in the mine.”

“There were no books, just demons.” Zarahel held his hand up to his ear and cocked his head to one side. He looked as if he were listening to something. A small smile flickered on his lips. He looked sidelong at Vosh.

“My friend says you are lying,” said Zarahel.

“What bloody friend?” asked Vosh, his amazement overcoming his fear.

“You should not lie to me. I went back to the manor. I found some corpses. Some of them talked to me. Some of the dead men you betrayed.”

“While you were talking to dead men why did you not ask them about the books?” Vosh asked with a last spurt of defiance.

“I would have, except somebody stole the head of the one who could tell me what I want to know.” His hand went to his ear again, and the pensive look flickered over his face. “My friend tells me you know what I am talking about.”

“What friend? Talking to the dead again, are you? Talking to ghosts?”

Zarahel gestured and something that looked like a massive spider crawled out from within his cowl then skittered down his arm until it sat atop the back of his hand. He lowered it onto Vosh’s naked belly. A closer inspection revealed it was not entirely a spider but close enough. Its lower body was long and segmented and had a barbed stinger attached. Vosh felt its furry legs tickling his stomach. He saw the evil, intelligent glitter in its manifold eyes. He saw the venom dripping from its mandibles. As it advanced towards his throat, he felt a terror bordering on insanity.

The spider was unnatural, a demon thing that would suck out his soul, just like in the old tales. Its eyes glittered with a wicked mocking intelligence as they briefly looked into his. The feeling of it on his face was almost unbearable. Its soft bloated body dragged across the flesh of his chest and touched his lips for a moment. The barbed sting arched. He could see its needle point just above his eye. The weight of the thing impeded his breathing.

“Tell me what I want to know and I will let you live. Don’t tell me and I will leave you with my small friend here.”

“All right! All right.” The spider turned and walked down his body again.

Vosh could not bear to feel that soft body press down on his belly, feel those long legs scuttle across his stomach. The thing was heading towards his groin.

“Tell me everything.” Vosh told him everything he knew. He did not owe the soldiers anything. Zarahel got up to leave.

“You’re not going to let that thing kill me,” Vosh asked, almost weeping with relief in spite of himself. The mattress felt wet beneath him. It looked like the Prophet intended to keep his word. He prayed to all the gods that he would.

“It won’t nor will I,” said Zarahel with a smile. He gestured to the glittering eyed youths from his clan. “They will.”

Chapter Seventeen

Rik woke up as the first light of the sun leaked in through the curtains. His bladder felt like it was bursting. His head felt as if someone had used it as a drum the previous night. He looked over at the dark-haired girl on the bed and tried to remember her name. Rena, he thought.

She was very pretty and had been very skilled. He checked his purse and it clinked reassuringly, the same weight as it had been the night before. He looked inside and checked the coins. He had known girls in Sorrow who had been very good at putting pewter buttons in place of coin.

Everything was there except the money he had given her. From old habit, he considered searching the room quietly and seeing if she had anything worth stealing, but it was an impulse easily suppressed. Instead he used the chamber pot, stuck his head out of the brothel window, checked the street for people below and then tossed its contents down. There was nobody except a few beggars in range to be splattered so he shouted no warning, not wanting to disturb the girl.

She stirred languorously, stretched, opened her eyes and gave him a foxy look. He tried to remember how they had met but it was all a fragmented, alcohol-blasted blur of memory. He recalled the candlelit dance palace below, a massive chandelier overhead, lots of people jigging and the Barbarian heading off propped up by a girl on either side. Doubtless he would be waking up without his purse sometime soon. Leon had wandered off with some pretty girl. Weasel he remembered sitting in a corner playing cards with some villainous looking cutthroats, his pipe jammed in his mouth, his cap at an accidentally rakish angle on his head.

“Come back to bed,” said the girl.

“Night’s over,” he said. “I paid your Aunt for the night.”

“No charge. It’s not often I get to sleep with somebody like you.”

That’s what she always says, he thought cynically. These girls liked repeat business and flattery was as much their stock in trade as tumbling in bed.

“You look like an Exalted Lord,” she said, and she sounded serious. Maybe she’s a good actor, he thought, or maybe he was just too hung-over to judge. If truth be told, the last thing on his mind was sex. What he really wanted was a fried breakfast. There was nothing like it for settling a hangover. “And you’re not from around here, are you?”

Rik began to dress. “You don’t say much do you?” she asked.

“I’m from Sorrow,” he said.

“Shadzar, the Place of Sorrow” she said, using the old proper name. “I’ve always wanted to go there.”

It was obvious she was half-expecting him to offer to take her there. She had probably received many such offers in the past. He looked at her and found some of his cynicism melting. She was just a country girl, thinking about the big city, and there was a terrible hopefulness in her eyes. He had seen that look before, on the faces of new arrivals, just before the wicked city broke them.

“It’s an awful place,” he told her. “You are better off here.”

“It’s supposed to be beautiful.” He considered that. He supposed to an outsider the glittering towers and fancy mansions must look that way. To him they had simply been reminders of all the things he could never have, places where all the people who had carelessly and accidentally ruined his life had dwelled.

He felt the old envy and bitterness well up in him, and suddenly the books came back into his mind. He felt a keenness to get out of here, to begin to look them over, to see if he could find some path towards a better future in them. No matter what evil they might contain, it could surely be no worse than what his life already held. He had to find a way to stop Weasel selling them. A chill of fear stabbed through his hangover. He had to find a way to stop Vosh selling them out too. How had things gotten so complicated, so fast?

“It is,” he told her, pulling on his boots. They were starting to come apart at the seams. He would need to see a cobbler before they went on the march. “I have to go,” he said.

“Take me to breakfast with you,” she said. “I know a good place.”

He looked at her for a moment, and considered refusing. They were strangers really, but she looked oddly young and hopeful at that moment, and he could not quite bring himself to refuse.

“Let’s go eat then,” he said. First food, he thought, then the books. He needed time to think anyway.

The stairs creaked below Rik’s feet. He could hear voices below him, low, tired and subdued. The place stank like every bar he had ever been in the morning after a big night. The scent of stale tobacco, stale booze and stale bodies hung in the air, and not even the slow breeze blowing in through the open doors could entirely disperse the stink. He studied his surroundings in a way he had not been sober enough to do the night before. They were every bit as tawdry as he had expected. It had long been his experience that places which held a certain seedy glamour by night looked far worse in the cold light of morning. There was nothing about Mama Horne’s to make him revise that opinion.

Cheap prints of famous courtesans and actresses covered the walls. They were stained and peeling. The boards of the stairs were poorly sanded and a little warped. The huge chandelier was still impressive though. It looked like it had been salvaged from the wreckage of some factor’s mansion. It was as out of place here as a Princess’s gown on a scrofulous grandmother. The starbrights had dimmed at the touch of daylight. They would glow again magically come nightfall. Right now they were just inert chunks of crystal.

“Thank you, gentlemen,” he heard Weasel say. “It’s always a pleasure to take your money.”

He rounded a curve in the stairs and looking over the banister caught sight of the man himself. It was obvious the game had run on all night. Three other men were awake at the table, unshaven and red-eyed as Weasel himself. One of them was stark naked except for his hat and his pipe. Several others lay asleep on nearby couches. One or two had girls snuggled near them. One clutched a bottle under his arm and muttered something in his sleep. More empty bottles lay on nearby tables. Weasel looked around and said brightly; “Another hand?”

There was some muttering but no one looked like they wanted to take him up on it. Weasel grinned, and pushed a pile of clothing to the naked man with his feet. “You can have it, Ari. I can afford to be generous.”

“Rub it in, why don’t you?” said somebody else. Rik nodded and was about to walk past with Rena when Weasel called him over.

“A word, Halfbreed,” he said. “A word to the wise.”

He sounded more serious than usual, and Rik could tell from his expression that he had something more on his mind than merely cheating at cards. Perhaps he suspected that some of these men suspected him of it, and wanted back up to clear the house with his winnings. It would not have been the first time Rik had performed such a service.


“There’s some stuff came up in conversation that I think you should know.” He nodded in the direction of his playing partners. They were hard-faced, hard-eyed men. If he knew Weasel they were probably something in the local gangs, not leaders but well up within the hierarchy. Probably all of them were involved in one or the other of the Quartermaster’s little schemes.

“Wait a bit till the Barbarian gets up, that way I won’t have to repeat myself,” Weasel said, his gaze shifting between Rik and Rena.

“You know what he’s like in a place like this. We might not see him again for days. We were just going to have breakfast. I am hungry.” The hangover put a whine in Rik’s voice.

“Fortunately, I had the foresight to send someone with a wakeup call.”

“He’ll never leave his bed for anything less than the building burning down, and not even then if he likes the girls.”

“We’ll see.”

A bull-like bellow from above let Rik know that the Barbarian’s wakeup call had arrived. Shortly thereafter he appeared, wearing only his britches and carrying his huge knife. He hopped down the stairs obviously having got a splinter in his foot. They creaked ominously beneath his weight. The pain was not making him any happier.

“Where is this bastard that says he can take any Northman here?” he roared. He was so angry his walrus moustaches bristled.

Rik looked at Weasel who shrugged as if to say it was the only way.

“He ran away when I told him you were coming downstairs,” said Weasel. The Barbarian looked a little mollified but glared around sullenly to see if anyone would take up the challenge. The local hard-men found other things to look at. Hard they might be, but crazy they were not. There was no profit for them in getting into a brawl with the likes of the Barbarian.

“Anyway, now you are up how about joining me and Rik for some breakfast?” Rena tugged at his arm as if to say this was not what she had in mind. Rik looked at her and said, “Wait a moment. This could be important.”

The Barbarian looked at them both and said; “You would not be having me on about anything, would you?”

“Would I do that?” said Weasel. “There is something I want to talk about though, and it is important.”

“It’s not about the books, is it?” said the Barbarian glancing at them both significantly and winking. Rik shuddered. Weasel put his hand on the Barbarian’s shoulder and said to Rena; “I promised him a book with dirty pictures in it. He can’t read but he likes to look.”

The Barbarian looked at him as if he had gone mad, then slowly realisation dawned. It was written all over his face.

Weasel gave Rena a long hard look then handed her a coin. “Go and get us all something to drink, girl. All of this playing has given me a thirst. Get yourself something as well.”

Rena could take a hint. Her fist closed around the coin like a trap and she vanished through a side door. Weasel drew them all down to a nearby table. They all slumped into the chairs.

“What is it?” Rik asked.

“Vosh was right. There are Agante tribesmen in town. A fair number too.”

“So what? They come here to trade all the time,” said the Barbarian. “All the hill-men do. Even I know that!”

“Eagle Eye Ari over there says they are looking for somebody, somebody who answers to the description of our friend Vosh.”

“That’s his problem,” said the Barbarian.

“Vosh was not the only one they were asking about,” said Weasel. “They were asking about soldiers as well, just come back from the hills. Paying good mountain silver for the information too.”

“How does Eagle Eye know?” asked Rik.

“Because it’s his business to know,” said Weasel and tapped one long finger on the side of his nose. “It’s his trade. The others back him up too, and believe me, they are the sort of men who know these things.”

“You mean he’s one of those who took the silver?” Rik said.

“Ari’s a friend; he would never do that to me. He knows better.”

From his experience in Sorrow Rik doubted that. There were few things men would not do for money if the chance arose. Women too, for that matter. The image of Sabena, blonde and so innocent looking danced through his mind.

“Wait a minute,” said the Barbarian. “You mean those hill-men might be looking for us?”

“I knew you would get there eventually,” Weasel said.

“But why?”

“Revenge for their dead kinfolk. Maybe. Just a thought.”

Revenge was something the Barbarian understood very well. It was the sort thing that happened all the time in his cold homeland. His answer did not surprise Rik.

“Bring them on,” he said.

Rik shook his head. It was bad enough being shot at when he was on duty. Now it looked like he might have some murderous hill-men after him even when he was not. “Maybe we should tell the Watch.”

“And what will they do? If the Agante give them a little silver they will probably help find us.” There was something about Weasel’s pleased expression that told Rik he was saving the worst till last.

“Why do I have a feeling you are not telling us everything?”

“Also I think I have a real lead on a buyer for our little book collection…”

Rik felt his heart sink. That he desperately wanted to hold onto them for as long as possible was not something he was going to tell Weasel.

“A buyer? Who?”

“There’s an old rich guy, a factor for the Selari, name of Bertragh, has a mansion in the merchant’s quarter.”

“I hope you did not mention anything about our books to anybody,” said Rik.

“Give old Weasel some credit. His name came up in conversation as we were playing.”

“That was convenient.”

“Seems Ari’s boys have sold him stuff in the past. He’ll buy any sorts of old books, no questions asked. Has a particular interest in mystical ones. Seems just lately he’s been looking to buy some more.”

“Sounds like he’s a prime candidate for a visit by the Inquisition,” said Rik. He was thinking this sounded like classic behaviour of one of the Dark Brotherhoods, those legendary conspiracies so-beloved of chap-book writers. Rik knew that they were more than legendary though. He had seen some strange things during his time in Shadzar.

“Not if he’s buying on behalf of his patron.” Rik saw where this was leading and did not like it one little bit, although there was not much he could do about it at the moment. It was a factor’s business to do what his master’s wanted, and if some Selari Terrarch collected old tomes, it would be his business to furnish the library. He did sound like a good candidate for a sale, unfortunately.

“Ours are not exactly the sort of book that the Exalted approve of.”

“So much the better. Apparently this guy’s patron has a particular interest in such things. Pays good coin for them. Ari claims some of his lads got extra leverage just by hinting their wares were in the Scarlet Index.”

“Ari’s boys robbing libraries, are they?”

“Some of them do high wire work just like you and Leon, Halfbreed. Sometimes when they lift from a house they find books in the treasure chests along with the gold. You know as well as I do they are always worth something.”

Rik did indeed. He thought back to some of the things he had found in strongboxes. Account books with complete lists of debtors, letters that incriminated certain wealthy, respectable and very married citizens, a collection of vintage pornography. It had all been worth something. When very young and naive he had even come across a book in one of the Dead Tongues that he knew now was a grimoire. Foolishly he had given it to the Old Witch. He supposed there just might be something to this tale.

“Assuming this Bertragh is interested, how do we contact him without giving the game away?”

“You’re getting slow in your old age, Halfbreed. I thought it would be obvious.” It was when he thought about it.

“We tell him Ari sent us…”

“Sometimes you are even quicker than the Barbarian is.”

Rik smiled. He needed to be seen to go along with just now. He needed time to work out a way to push an iron bar through the spokes of this deal. Another thought struck him like a blow.

“I reckon we should ask brother Vosh some more questions, some very hard questions.”

“Way ahead of you,” said Weasel. “I already sent Leon to fetch him. The lad’s an early riser.”

“What about finding these tribesmen ourselves,” said the Barbarian. “Get them before they get us.”

Weasel sucked his teeth and shook his head slightly. “It might take a little time.”

“Well, when you do find the bastards let me know,” said the Barbarian. “I’ll make sure they never trouble anybody ever again.”

Weasel nodded. It looked like they were finished here for the moment. He drummed his finger on his thigh, waiting for Rena to come back so they could go eat. Just then Leon came in. His face was pale and he looked more than a little sick. Rik guessed it was not because of his hangover either.

“Somebody got Vosh,” he said. “He’s deader than a dragon’s dinner.”

Chapter Eighteen

Sardec woke from strange dreams of far times and other days. He wondered if they were true visions of the Blessed Land and things that had happened there, or mere fantasies. Sometimes, the Dreamwalker let the Farborn see true. He had heard that some of those born on the soil of Gaeia had visions of things only the Everborn could know, and the truth of their dreams had been confirmed by their elders. Such visions were especially common around Solace, and were said to be a good omen.

Sardec tried to remember exactly what he had seen but already it was fading, receding into those caverns where dreams go when they wish to avoid scrutiny. All he could recall was the presence of two Terrarchs so similar looking they could only be brothers. Both had cast very long shadows. There had been a dragon there too, the power of its halo so intense that Sardec could recall it vividly. The great beast had been far more alive, far more wrapped in power than anything born on Gaeia. He shook his head. If there had been a dream-reader close by, he might have gone to her, but there were no true interpreters of visions in a provincial place like this.

He rose and strode into the outer chamber. His bath was already drawn, warm as he liked it, and filled with the scented oils his mother had sent from the capital, and which he preferred because they reminded him of home. On a silver plate on a mirrored chest of drawers were two envelopes, both of expensive paper and bearing the seal of Princess Asea. One was an invitation to visit her at noon.

The second was a beautifully engraved invitation to the Solace Ball, at Asea’s palace. He swiftly penned a response to both and dispatched them into town by courier before settling himself into the warm waters of the tub.

Vosh had not died easily. Blood was everywhere, soaking the bed, forming sticky congealing pools on the floor. Flies lapped it up. A gag had stoppered his screams.

Rik looked at Weasel. The poacher was a little paler than usual but his face was stony. The Barbarian whistled jauntily but something about his eyes told Rik he was no happier than Weasel. Leon did not even pretend nonchalance. He was busy being noisily sick in a chamber pot.

No wonder the boy was so thin, Rik thought. He seemed to have trouble keeping anything down. He guessed it was not the corpse alone that was bothering them. God knows they had all seen plenty of those before. It was the incongruousness of it, finding a body so mutilated in a place where they had been drinking the night before, that had no connection with the scene of any battle.

“What in the Seven Hells happened here?” The landlord Shugh seemed to have forgotten all about his threats of the previous evening. He was perplexed that such a thing could have happened in his inn, and seemed to welcome anyone who might give him a clue. Seemed was the appropriate word. It was possible he had been in league with whoever had done this and did not want anyone to know. It would not do his business any good, if people thought things like this could happen to them in his hourly rate rooms.

Rik looked at him coldly. “What I would like to know is how something like this could happen without anybody noticing?”

Shugh looked at him, read the suspicion in his eyes and replied quickly; “He was bound hand and foot. He had a gag in his mouth. He had paid for the room for the night. No one was going to trouble him till he refused to get up when your friend here came calling this morning.”

“He was alone then?”

“No. He went up with a girl. Marla was her name.”

“She didn’t do this on her own.”

“She left an hour later. Said Vosh was asleep, and did not want to be disturbed.”

“Somebody disturbed him,” said the Barbarian, his voice a little thicker than usual. “Somebody disturbed him quite a lot.”

Weasel started as if he suddenly remembered something, strode forward and undid the rag from around Vosh’s mouth. Something like a small shrivelled sausage fell out.

“They stuffed his dick in his mouth,” said Weasel, with a certain gloomy satisfaction. “Hill-men did this for sure. It’s their favourite punishment for traitors. They did it while he was still alive and bleeding to death.”

Rik nodded. He had heard the stories. It was one thing to hear about them. It was another thing to witness them from this close. Leon got even paler when he heard this. His eyes locked on Weasel’s face.

“You think they want to do this to us.” It was an alarming prospect Rik thought. Weasel shot Leon a warning look. This was not the sort of thing to be discussed in front of Shugh.

Shugh just looked at him. “We’re going to have to get rid of this body,” he said.

“Don’t be cutting it up and putting it in your pies,” said Weasel.

“It might improve the taste,” said the Barbarian. Not surprisingly Shugh did not appreciate the joke. He lumbered off downstairs shouting for his sons. Nobody had suggested calling the Watch. Nobody would.

“Think we might have hit a nerve there,” said Rik.

The Barbarian looked at Vosh’s open mouth. “Don’t think I will be trying the sausage rolls around here.”

“What now?” Leon asked.

“I say we find this Marla,” said Weasel. “And keep our eyes peeled for hill-men.”

“And all I wanted was a good time,” said the Barbarian looking up at the ceiling and chewing the ends of his moustache wistfully.

“That’s all he wanted too,” said Weasel. “Look at him now.”

Who had done this, wondered Rik? And had Vosh told them anything about the books?

As he rode through the outskirts of the Exalted quarter, Sardec could not help but notice the beautiful mansions of the human parasites who had attached themselves to the coat-tails of the Elder race. Here a discreet golden disk hanging over the door announced that a lovely broad-fronted house belonged to a goldsmith just as much as the bars covering the windows did.

On another a sign of a mortar and pestle showed this shop belonged to a particularly prosperous alchemist. The buildings showing the insignia of the local Terrarch Houses announced their inmates to be factors of the Exalted, those human middle men who oversaw the estates of their masters and handled all their business. Such men often became very wealthy themselves, doubtless by pocketing a proportion of the money that rightfully belonged to their masters.

Approaching the centre of the town, Sardec was relieved to see the humans became fewer and better dressed, neatly liveried in garments that bore the emblems of their masters. Many Terrarchs saluted him as he passed, and he returned their greetings in the casual off-hand style of the high nobility. Most of the people were in their temple best, and seemed to be coming from the noontime prayers. Here at least people kept to the Mourning Time rituals.

The streets widened. Townhouses gave way to the palaces proper, where the local Terrarch families dwelled when they were not on their estates. Sardec entered Temple Square. The massive structure loomed over him. Its sides were covered in alcoves containing numerous dragon-winged angels; their small horns were nubs of gold.

Since it was Mourning Time black prayer flags bearing the green dragon sigil of lost Al’ Terra fluttered from the corner towers of the temple alongside the red dragon of Talorea. Ropes with more small triangular mourning flags descended from the great central dragonspire jutting from the roof to each of the lesser towers.

Sardec reined his destrier in, and placed his hand first on his forehead then on his heart when he faced the Temple. Some of the Terrarch Priests robed in the traditional green and white fringed with Mourning Time black noted his piety and nodded approvingly. Sardec ignored their attention as was suitable for a high noble, and rode directly towards Princess Asea’s palace.

It was in a particularly favourably aspected location, occupying one whole side of the square facing the temple itself and rivalling it in size. A massive sandstone observatory tower rose from the eastern side of the building. A ritual dome loomed atop the building. This was a fitting mansion for one of the First, one mighty in sorcery. Sardec had heard stories of the labyrinths beneath it where Asea conducted her rituals and her research. Some of those tales were not entirely wholesome. It was a mighty structure in the old style arranged around a central courtyard.

Sardec passed through the archway into the first courtyard. Leaving his destrier in the charge of the grooms, he strode through another archway and into the much larger inner courtyard. He stopped and breathed in the scented air and took in the beautiful surroundings. In the centre of the courtyard was a stand of Dreamflowers brought from Al’ Terra during the Exile. Locked away in that dingy village beside the Redoubt, it had been too long since he had experienced the allures of his own culture. It was nice to be reminded of what he had sworn to defend when he had taken the Queen’s Oath.

Officers in the uniform of the Regiment strolled with elaborately gowned ladies. It looked like every Terrarch in the region had found reason to pay Princess Asea a visit once it became known that the Lord of Battles would be coming here. He caught sight of a beautiful Lady emerging from a small private temple in the courtyard, strolling side by side with a group of officers and lesser belles. She was quite the loveliest thing he had seen in a long time, her hair silver and long, her mask hinting at the exquisitely sculpted features below. This was Asea he felt sure. Only one of the First would be so tall and yet so graceful. He noticed that one of the officers in attendance was Lieutenant Jazeray.

Sardec approached with the maximum of formal politeness and inclined his head gravely to Asea. Jazeray leaned forward and whispered something up into her ear. Sardec was delighted that although her attendants laughed she did not, but appeared to reprimand him. Instead, she changed course, and came towards him. Something about her multi-layered skirts gave the motion all the stateliness of a galleon changing course. Briefly he considered saying so, but realised that it was a very inapt analogy to use to one so beautiful.

“Greetings, Prince Sardec,” she said, using his formal courtly rank, rather than his military one. That pleased him. Although Princes were common enough among the Terrarch nobility, anyone even distantly related to the Queen was given the title, and most of the great houses could make that claim, it was still a greater rank than Jazeray commanded. “When next you write you must remind your dear father how very fond I am of him.”

“It must be quite difficult to live up to the deeds of such an illustrious sire,” said Jazeray. “Although I understand you have been doing your best.”

Asea looked at him enquiringly. Sardec saw the trap coming but there was nothing he could do to avoid it. He remained silent. Jazeray was a pleasant enough fellow most of the time, when you were not the butt of his wit. But he had a malicious streak in him that came out whenever something stood in the way of what he wanted. Of course, what Terrarch did not?

“Prince Sardec has been fighting with demons,” said Jazeray. “Armed with the same blade his father used at the Ford he vanquished a monster of the Elder World.”

“Is this true?” asked Asea. Sardec felt a flash of pique at Jazeray. He was put in a position of lying about what had happened or looking a fool in the eyes of one of the First. Jazeray was going to make him admit to his own dishonour in the mine. One day he would get Jazeray for this, Sardec’s promised himself. Jazaray and that accursed half-breed who put him in this position.

“Not quite,” said Sardec.

“Surely, my dear friend, it’s either true or it isn’t?” said Jazeray.

“My force encountered a demon, an Ultari. One of my soldier’s slew it.”

Sardec was not quite sure but he felt that just for a moment more than polite interest flickered in the Lady’s eyes when she heard the spider demon mentioned.

“With your sword, or so rumour has it,” said Jazeray. “Of course, we are not ones to take such rumours at face value.”

“The story is correct, sir.”

“It is good to know that humans now have such a high opinion of themselves that they think to make free with their officer’s swords,” Jazeray said.

“It was a human who used your blade?” asked Asea.

“It was. The sword is now being purified.”

“There was a time when a human would have been burned for such insolence. Salamanders would have eaten their souls,” said Jazeray. It pained Sardec to hear these words, the more so because he agreed with Jazeray’s sentiments.

“Thank the Light that such times are in the past,” said Asea. She came from a truly radical branch of her family Sardec recalled. She had been among those who had supported the freeing of the human thralls and the creation of Parliament’s House Inferior. Before that she had been one of the Scarlet Queen’s strongest supporters during the Great Schism. Still, so beautiful was she that he was perhaps prepared to forgive her even this.

“I confess I am intrigued by your tale, for reasons of my own,” she said. “Perhaps you would do me the honour of taking wine with me.”

Asea gave him a smile that warmed his heart. He gave her a formal bow and gestured for her to pass so gracefully that his dancing master would have been proud. Asea looked at Jazeray, apparently providing him with a cue.

“I regret, fair lady, that duty calls me elsewhere. For nothing less would I leave the light of your company.”

“For nothing less would I let you,” she said, with more politeness than warmth. Jazeray bowed, and strode confidently away towards the arch.

“An interesting young man,” said Asea.

“One hears such rumours about him,” said Sardec.

“Now, Prince,” she said, “don’t you start that game too. You should be above it.”

Sardec was quite taken aback by this rebuke, and judged it merited. “Thank you for reminding me of my manners. I am a simple soldier, too long from polite company.”

“You sound just like your father when he was your age,” said Asea. “How old are you now? Thirty?”

“Thirty one, Lady.”

With something like shock Sardec realised that she was talking of his father as he had been almost seven centuries before. But of course that was well within the memory of one of the First. Asea looked the same age as his sister but she was far older than his mother, and one of the most powerful sorceresses in the land. That was a thing that was well to remember, he thought. Keep your guard up.

She offered him her arm, and they turned and entered her palace.

Chapter Nineteen

“Please be seated, Prince,” said Lady Asea. Sardec waited for her to sit and then took his own chair. A servant stood behind each of them to make sure the seat was perfectly placed.

The room was, as he had expected, beautiful. A formal landscape by Trentuvalle dominated one wall, a painting of one of the Seven Lakes so exquisite that you could almost believe that the painter had walked the Blessed Land before the Exile. He made the observation and saw Lady Asea hide a smile behind her fan. As he always did in the presence of Terrarchs so much his elder, he felt more than a little gauche. It was hard to imagine this smiling beauty as the famous Lady in Grey, a sorceress as feared during the conquest as Azaar himself.

“It is a true and perfect likeness of Lake Neverne. Cousin Trent painted a similar in miniature to remind him of home,” said Asea. “It was his favourite place. He carried that miniature everywhere… until the end.”

Sardec seemed to recall a rumour that the painter had been her lover. He had committed suicide under extremely obscure circumstances. There might have been a scandal if he recalled correctly.

“How is your dear father?” she enquired.

“As well as might be expected,” said Sardec, proud of the fact that his face had not coloured in shame. Many felt his father, too, should have gone to the Palace of Forgetfulness when his sickness came on him. Having the Grey Plague and not doing so was considered very tasteless in some quarters.

“I have regretted being deprived of his company these recent years,” said Asea. For all his pride, Sardec’s father’s illness had caused him to withdraw to their estates.

Asea removed her mask and placed it down on the small table between them. Her features were just as exquisitely sculpted and far more lovely. Her eyes were very large. Her lips were very full. Her teeth were very white. Her cheekbones were high. But it was not just the physical beauty that was so affecting. The unmasking produced an effect of extraordinary sensuality that struck Sardec like a blow.

She smiled as if she knew exactly the effect she was having and was enjoying it. Sardec raised his guard even higher. He had known such Terrarch women as this before. He had never enjoyed feeling manipulated by them.

“Will you have something to drink?” asked the Princess, in such a manner that made it clear that he was expected to say yes.

“I would love to, Lady,” said Sardec. The smile widened a fraction. She rang a bell and a servant appeared. Sardec had to struggle to keep from staring. The human, if human it was, was garbed all in black from his tunic to his shiny boots. Even his head was wrapped in what must have been a very long scarf so that only his blazing black eyes were visible. He wore a crimson sash at his waist. Through it was thrust a short curve-bladed knife the like of which Sardec had never seen before. He placed a tray containing a decanter of silverine and two glasses on the table beside Asea’s mask. He poured from the decanter and then withdrew to a discreet distance. He was, by far, the most perfectly poised human Sardec had ever encountered. Asea followed his glance once more. Once more he felt gauche. Was she doing this deliberately he wondered.

“Karim is from the desert lands of Xulander,” she said. “He entered my service there. His people served the Serpent Men once. Now they serve me.”

Another rumour came to him, one he had overheard being quoted rudely and speculatively in the officer’s mess when the Terrarchs were in their cups — something about her and two of her servants from the southern continent being lovers. Was it true, he wondered? He could detect no signs of impropriety in the relationship now, but then how could he judge? Asea had more than a millennium’s experience of dissembling her emotions. Her smile widened fractionally again, as if she could read his thoughts.

“Tell me about your recent sojourn in the mountains,” she said. Off balance, Sardec began telling her about his recent foray into the hills. Only once the tale was well under way did he begin to consider the propriety of talking to her about what some would have said was a secret mission. He dismissed the thought. The Lady Asea was trusted by Azaar himself. She was one of the First. If she was not to be trusted, no one was.

A small quiet voice told Sardec to be careful. Who was he to know who was trustworthy or not. According to his father, a great deal of treachery had been perpetrated by the First down the years. Still, he could not see what harm would be done by speaking to her.

She seemed particularly interested in his description of the Ultari when he came to it.

“You saw it quite clearly?”

“Quite clearly, Lady.” He remembered now how particular Colonel Xeno had been on this point as well, and pulled up short.

“What is it, Prince?”

“Perhaps nothing, Lady Asea.”

“I am intrigued.” He did not want to tell her of the Colonel’s interest in the subject, so he said.

“I was wondering why you are so interested in these creatures.”

“I am more than curious.” She shivered. “I can still remember the time of the wars with the Spider God. I was in the western islands at the time fighting against the Spawn of Dagoth. The tales that reached us even there were disturbing to say the least.”

“But the Spider God was defeated.”

“Yes. Deep Achenar was sealed, the minions of Uran Ultar defeated and the Spider God banished or destroyed.”

“You think the matter is significant?” She gave him a dazzling smile that made him feel more childish than ever.

“The Scuttler in the Shadows was one of the greatest foes the Ten Thousand ever faced. It troubles me more than a little that a sorcerer should be poking around so close to his last resting place. More worrying still is that one of Uran Ultar’s servants should still be alive down there.”

“You think someone may be trying to resurrect the Spider God?” That was a disturbing thought.

“Resurrect is the wrong word. I doubt that Uran Ultar was ever truly dead. The entrances to Deep Achenar were destroyed. The ways were sealed with Elder Signs and a guard was set to watch over the place. Nothing ever emerged and over the centuries the watch was withdrawn. The thing was deemed dealt with by the powers that be.”

“You think Uran Ultar still waits in the darkness?” He had gone down into those mines. He had seen the Ultari. Had he really been in close proximity to an ancient demon god?

“I think it’s more than possible. More to the point perhaps somebody else thinks it’s possible. What other reason could your sorcerer have for being there?”

“Seeking knowledge perhaps? The Old Races possessed many secrets unknown even to the Terrarchs.” Even as he said it, Sardec was aware that he must sound terribly earnest and naive, presuming to give advice to a sorceress who had been steeped in the darkest of arts a thousand years before he had even been born. Once again it occurred to him to wonder what exactly her interest was.

“This is a matter that bears further investigation.”

“If there is anything I can do to help, milady, you have only to let me know.”

“Thank you. I may hold you to your word.” She spoke over her shoulder to the black garbed servant. “Karim, go to the temple and request from the Archivist any copies of the Books of Skardos he might have in his possession.”

Karim bowed and departed. Sardec realised he must be a trusted servant indeed to be entrusted with such a request, and the Archivist must know it, for she seemed to expect no difficulties in acquiring a loan of the books that sounded as if they should be on the Scarlet Index.

After that their conversation sank back into the intricate chit-chat required by etiquette. “Perhaps you would care to see my gallery,” Asea offered, after Sardec talked of his liking for Trentuvalle’s painting. He assented at once.

They passed through a long gallery lined with paintings. Every one of them was a masterpiece of its kind. They depicted famous scenes from Terrarch history on Gaeia. He felt a little silly when he realised that the beautiful woman who appeared in all of them was the same lady who walked beside him now.

There she stood with the Old Queen Amarielle at the head of the Terrarch Host when they had first passed through the Eye of the Dragon to set foot on this world. Behind them in a seemingly endless line, passing through the arch that was also a gateway between the worlds, was the entire Ten Thousand. Awestruck humans, wrapped in wolfskins, watched the arrival of their new rulers. Angels played harps in the stormy sky above them. Asea followed his glance.

“Rather overdone,” she said. “I don’t recall the musical angels but Azhog was always prone to flights of fantasy when he painted. The Queen wore a green silk headscarf, not red. Of course, the picture dates from the height of the Schism, three hundred years ago. Politics was in the air.”

“Azhog was a human, wasn’t he?”

“He was. Why do you mention it?”

“Humans are always sensitive to what they see as the desires of their patrons.”

She gave him a sidelong smile that was at once knowing and annoying. “And Terrarchs are not?”

He smiled back, realising that he had made something of a mistake. Asea was well known to have been of the Scarlet faction. Her support for so-called progressive causes was legendary. She had been one of Queen Arielle’s most vocal supporters during the Schism, helped recruit her half-brother Azaar to the Scarlet cause. In many ways, she had been one of the prime movers in the destruction of the First Empire. Had it not been for her, a unified Terrarchy might still rule all the lands between the Great Eastern Wastes and the Western Ocean, instead of being divided into the Five Kingdoms of the West, assorted petty states and the Dark Empire of Sardea. Of course, that would have meant they would now be living under the rule of Arielle’s sister, Arachne. He realised she was waiting for an answer.

“No. The power of patronage is too well known in our society for me to deny it,” he said. She gave him the sort of smile a proud teacher gives a clever child. “You have an interesting collection of paintings.”

“They are a vanity of mine,” Asea said. “This gallery in particular.”

He glanced at a shocking picture of the murder of the Old Queen, the two sisters who were to become rivals glanced at each other of their corpse of their dead mother, as she lay on a blood-soaked bed in her chambers in the Amber Palace. Arielle was dressed in red, Arachne in purple. They glared at each other with a hatred that foreshadowed the coming civil war. It took him a moment, to pick out Asea’s face in the crowd of witnesses. She did not look shocked. She looked calm.

“I do not recognise this painter,” Sardec said. “I am sure I should. The style is remarkable.

“Hanusan, another human. His work was suppressed by the Inquisition. It is on the Black Index. Somebody objected to his rather too realistic depictions of certain events in our history. I believe it was Lord Malkior. He was chancellor at the time.” Sardec paused to contemplate this for a moment, realising that he was looking on nothing less than a display of astonishing political power. Lady Asea was so secure that she could flaunt proscribed works. She seemed to read his thoughts.

“This gallery is restricted to my personal use, and that of a few privileged guests. I have a personal dispensation from the High Inquisitor. He trusts my judgement.”

“As no doubt he should, Lady Asea. Are all your paintings by humans?”

“All of them in this particular gallery, yes. I have been the patron of many of their best artists down the years.” Sardec felt compelled to say then that it was all rather crude work, but honesty prevented him from doing so. If it fell short of the best Terrarch paintings it did so only be a hairsbreadth. If truth be told, some of it was significantly better than paintings by well-known Terrarch artists.

“You look as if something has just struck you,” Asea said.

“I think this gallery makes a statement about its owner,” he said. “Several statements actually.”

“But, of course, all such collections do. They reflect the taste of the individual involved.”

“And the thought, I would say, certainly in this case.”

“You intrigue me. What do you think this collection says about me?”

“That you are unconventional.”

“That is a rather conventional observation.”

“That you are vain.”

“I see you do not seek my favour by flattering me.” She sounded amused rather than offended.

“That you wish to remind the viewer of your position in our long history.”

She nodded. “And?”

“And you want the world to know of your political sympathies. You favour the humans. You are a devotee of the Scarlet cause.”

“Surely we all are. Our queen, after all, is the Scarlet Queen.”

“Let us say some of us are rather more dedicated to our Queen than the cause.”

“Is that possible?”

“I think many Terrarchs have reservations about the humans. They are not ready for power. I doubt even you are so…democratic in your principles as to suggest they are.”

“You sound almost like a Purple, Prince.”

“Far from it, Lady. I have sworn an oath of loyalty to our Queen. I will see her laws enforced. I will see our nation defended. Do not doubt it.”

“You sound just like your father did when he was your age,” she said.

“I am proud to do so,” he said, a little annoyed. She smiled and led him off down the gallery. They passed more paintings. He did his best to ignore them. He felt like he had just failed an important test. All pleasure in the viewing was gone for him.

Eventually enough time passed that Sardec felt that he could leave. Asea made him uncomfortable, more uncomfortable than any woman ever had. She seemed to sense this and even enjoy it.

“I regret that my duties require my presence elsewhere,” he said.

“It has been a very great pleasure for me,” she said. “You must call again.”

“An offer I accept with relish.”

“And you must come to our Solace Night ball,” said the Princess.

“If my duties permit it, I will gladly do so,” he said.

Sardec bowed to the Lady and backed out of the room, feeling obscurely like he had just made his escape from something he was not in the least prepared to deal with.

Chapter Twenty

“Your friend is still following us,” said Rena.

Rik looked around. Leon was still there on the other side of the street watching his back as he shadowed him, just like in the old days in Sorrow. Leon moved ahead now, giving Rik time to spot anyone who might be following him. It was a game they had played as kids, pretending that informers were after them. It was a game they had played as teenagers when there really had been watchers. It felt a little odd to be playing it again in the streets of a strange city, reassuring too in a weird way.

“I asked him to.” He did not say why and she seemed to sense from his manner that she was not supposed to ask.

The street was full of people, all of them busy. Many were buying paper Solace lanterns or papier mache masks of angels and demons and famous characters of fable. Some were sewing costumes. The smell of cinnamon spiced wine filled the air, attacking the odour of fish. Carp was a favourite Solace meal in this part of the world. Shoals of them swam in large wooden tubs in the street, ready for killing on the morrow. The city bustled with the air of subdued excitement and happiness that even he associated with Solace. It was one of the great public holidays, celebrated right across the Terrarch Realms. Just looking at the children all around he could see they were as excited as he would have been.

He shook his head. The kids were not old enough to know exactly what they were celebrating. The death of a world, he thought, or maybe two; the world the Terrarchs had come from, and the world of human empires they had destroyed and replaced.

“Why are you shaking your head?” Rena asked. He had found her back at the brothel when they had returned there. Weasel wanted to talk with some of his buddies and wait for some of his informants. Rik had seen no point in waiting around and gone with the original plan of eating out. She had actually seemed glad to see him, had even seemed a little scared that he might have left without saying goodbye. Maybe it was the war fever? The rumour seemed to be everywhere now. Maybe it gave him an air of doomed glamour. He had seen it happen before, as other campaigns started.

“I was remembering my childhood,” he lied. It was an old habit, learned early in the gutters of Sorrow. He rarely gave an honest answer to questions about what he was thinking.

“In Sorrow?” she asked. She seemed to have an obsession with the city. He was starting to suspect that it was the source of the attraction he seemed to hold for her.

“In Sorrow.”

“They say Solace in Sorrow rivals Solace in the Amber City itself.”

“They may be right. I would not know. I have never been to the capital.”

“But you serve in the Queen-Empress’s army. You have sworn fealty to her.”

Her statement made him laugh.

“Don’t laugh at me,” she said half-whining and half-wheedling.

“I am not laughing at you. I am laughing at the thought of the New Queen accepting my fealty. I swore the oath in front of a Terrarch captain and a Sergeant Major as ugly as sin, and I swore it in Sorrow, the day before we left to put down the Clockmaker’s rebellion.”

“You fought against the Clockmaker?” It was not something he particularly wanted to think about. Some of the rebels had been cruel and vicious men. Most of them had just been peasants sick of semi-slavery on Terrarch estates with heads filled full of the Clockmaker’s particular brand of religious nonsense. It seemed to be becoming more common these days.


That made her thoughtful, which made her pretty too, Rik thought. He found he actually enjoyed her company though he wondered in his heart of hearts why she was still with him.

They sat down at a table in a grog-shop. He checked and found Leon loitering in front of a second hand clothes shop on the other side of the street. He ordered food and wine for them both. The wine tasted of cinnamon and it was warmed. It looked like the stall-keeper was making an early start, for Solace was still a day away.

“Cinnamon,” he said. “It always makes me think of Solace.”

“Me too. Makes me think of when Ma was alive and the others…” Her voice drifted away, and she forced a smile.

“They dead?”

“Last year — the lockjaw fever got them. The little ones would not stop crying. There was nothing I could do to help them either.”

Here it comes, he thought, the sob story, the touch for money. He had heard them a hundred times in the stews of Sorrow. He was even prepared to give her some, because he liked her and because it was expected, but she surprised him by shaking her head and changing the subject. “What was it was so urgent this morning when you were called away?”

“I told you. Somebody I know was killed in the Headsman’s Axe last night.”

“A soldier?”

“No. A hill-man.”

“How did you know him then?”

“He was a scout, went along on our last patrol.”

He looked at her hard this time. Was she a spy? Was she trying to get word of troop movements or dispositions out of him? Such information might be worth something to people on the other side of the border. He took in her face and hands and bearing, and knew it was ridiculous. She was exactly what she appeared to be, just curious. Spies were for the chapbooks and cheap novels. The truth was, you could find out more than he knew from any of the tavern keepers in Redtower. There was no need to go questioning private soldiers.

“You a spy?” he asked, just for fun. She looked at him very seriously.

“No. I would never do anything like that. I would never help enemies of the Queen.”

She sounded quite genuinely patriotic, but then most of the people of Talorea did. The Scarlet Queen was the guarantor of freedom, the defender of the people. She had led the progressive faction in the great schism that had brought down the First Empire of the Terrarchs. She had signed the Acts of Liberation, and gone to war with her own flesh and blood on behalf of suffering humanity, and her people loved her for it despite all the humiliations that had been heaped on them since.

Why not, Rik thought cynically? He had seen many a whipped dog that still loved its master. He tried pushing the thought from his head. By the Light, he was in a foul mood this morning. Then again, anyone would be after what he had seen. He was surprised that he could move without screaming. It seemed impossible that all of these people could be going about their normal Solace business while Vosh lay bloating in Shugh’s cellar. Rik was with the Barbarian about one thing. He doubted he would ever eat at the Axe again.

He watched the street closely, seeing only the usual mass of peddlers, beggars, singers and kids. There was nothing sinister going on, and he doubted anything would happen to him while he was in a busy street, at least in daylight anyway. At night it would be different. At night, dark deeds got done, and the minions of Shadow came out to play.

He told himself not to be so sure. He had seen murder committed in broad daylight in the alleys of Sorrow, had heard men scream for help and no help come when the sun was at highest noon.

On the other hand, it would take a particularly confident group of killers to attack in broad daylight, and that did not seem to be this bunch’s method. They had taken Vosh drunk and off-guard in a tavern. Sensible men, he thought. It was what he would have done himself.

“And the man was killed for helping the Queen’s soldiers root out the Queen’s enemies,” said Rena. “That’s a scandal.”

“I don’t think the hill-men feel the same loyalty to the Amber Throne that you do,” he said. “And really we don’t know why he was killed. Maybe he owed somebody money or slept with the wrong woman. Men’ve been killed for jealousy before.”

A thought struck him. “You know a girl called Marla?”

“It’s a common enough name, and a lot of girls here don’t use their proper ones anyway.”

“She’s a hill-girl.”

“Few of those here. Got pregnant, chucked by their lovers, disowned by their families. Come down here to get away.”

“Most of them probably don’t. Get away I mean. Most of them are probably thrown off a cliff for dishonouring their clan’s honour. Well, it was a long shot anyway.”

“When we finish here let’s take a walk.”

“Whatever you say, lover.”

Their route took Rik and Rena out of the outskirts of the Pit and into the more respectable part of town. It was not exactly easy to spot where the change began. The houses just looked a little less run down, the people a little more respectable. There were watchmen on the street, garbed in black tabards and carrying heavy clubs. Even here they moved in groups of four, and they did not swagger, but at least they were not scared to show their faces.

He stood at the top of the slope leading down to the river and watched a massive bridgeback cross the river. The howdah on its back bore the banners of some Exalted house but it was the beast itself that held his interest. Even from up here he could sense its primal hungers, its sloth, the tiny flickers of rage that could, with enough provocation, become a bonfire. It was just his imagination, he told himself, but unease filled his heart just the same. They ducked down another street.

The shops here were of a higher quality. Although some had a burly bruiser standing by the door, at least they were respectful of passing customers. At the end of one street was a small temple, the usual statue of a dragon-winged angel standing guard over the doorway, a small dragonspire rising from its roof. The smell of incense wafted through the air. Rik caught sight of some familiar faces, emerging from inside the building.

There was Sergeant Hef in his temple best, and Marcie and all seven kids following them like ducklings following their mother to the pond. All of the kids had faces freshly scrubbed and the happy, anticipatory air of children on the morning before Solace.

Gunther was there as well, smiling for once and slipping a coin into the collection salver. He, too, was dressed in his temple best, hair washed and combed and slicked back. He seemed to have recovered fully from his encounter with the Ultari. He talked to the children with every appearance of friendliness, like a jovial uncle. It was a side of the fanatic that Rik had never seen before. Maybe going to temple brought it out in him, maybe he was just a nicer man than Rik had ever been prepared to give him credit for being.

Rik was tempted to avoid them. He doubted they would be happy to encounter him after a heavy night with a street girl in tow, but he thought about what had happened to Vosh and who might be looking for anyone who had been on the expedition to the mine, and he decided that he had better pass the happy news along, temple day or not. He was surprised to see quite a few other members of the regiment emerge into the daylight, blinking as their eyes adjusted from the dimness within.

“I need to speak to those men,” he told Rena. “Just wait here and I will be back in a moment.”

“You won’t start any trouble, will you?”

“They are friends of mine.”

He strode forward towards the Sergeant and his wife. The kids looked pleased to see him. “Here’s Halfbreed!” they shouted. He swept Karla, the littlest one up in his arms. She clung to his neck. Marcie gave him a smile. Gunther looked at him as if he had just crawled out of the sewer and was about to piss in the collection plate.

“You’re a little late for the morning service,” said the Sergeant, his monkey-face screwed up in a sardonic smile.

“It’s the last day of Mourning, too. It would have done your soul good to attend.” Gunther added. Rik was less worried about his soul than his life.

“I need to speak to you,” he said to the Sergeant, and recalling that Gunther had been in the mine, added. “To you, too. It’s important.”

Something in his tone appeared to convince them of his seriousness. They waited for him to speak. Rik put Karla down and looked at the kids. “This is not something they should hear.”

Calming the clamouring children down with promises of a swift return and candy, the Sergeant strode into an alcove within the temple doorway. After a moment of hesitation Gunther joined them. In a whisper Rik told them about Vosh, and of Weasel’s suspicions about the hill-men.

“We should report this to the authorities,” Gunther said. “The Exalted will deal with any heathens who get rowdy in Redtower.”

“I wish I had your faith in them,” said Rik. “The watch here is as corrupt as in Sorrow. If the hill-men have money, they can do what they like unless they start a riot or kidnap an Exalted.”

“Maybe in the Pit,” said Gunther. “But they would not dare out here among decent god-fearing people.”

“You might be right,” said Rik. “But I don’t think the Exalted will give a toss about this unless it affects them directly. Throats are slit in the Pit all the time. If you are wrong, you may wake up with more than a nasty taste in your mouth.”

The Sergeant nodded his agreement. “We’ll be moving out in a few days, and I doubt they will try anything in the camp, but if anybody is in town for Solace, then they might be at risk. I’ll tell the lads to be careful and not to wander around on their own.”

“Might be useful if we had a few extra knives at hand as well.”

“I’ll be mentioning it around. There’s a few of the lads will most likely relish the thought of putting a bayonet in a hill-man’s belly if they get the chance.”

“Bloodletting during Mourning is a bad thing,” said Gunther.

“Tell that to the hill-men,” said Rik. “I don’t want trouble any more than you do.”

“Where can I find you if I need to, Halfbreed?” asked Hef. He sounded all business now.

“I’ll be around Mother Horne’s. Weasel will be there too most likely, if you need to get in touch with him.”

Rik raised his hat to Marcie and the kids, and headed back to Rena.

Sardec thought a lot about Asea as he rode through the city. She was lovely and she was one of the First but there was something intimidating and sinister about her as well as attractive.

The First were different. His father had always said that. They had walked the lands of the home world. They had fought in wars and worked sorceries beyond the comprehension of the Farborn. There were times when they seemed as different from them as the Farborn were from humans. He was not sure how these things could be so but they were.

And she was the most forthright Scarlet he had ever met. He knew that such were common in Amber and around the court, but his family belonged to the country estates, and most of the people he knew were far less democratic in their politics. For most Terrarchs being Scarlet had gone out of fashion, they lived in a newer and far more conservative age. Asea was a reminder that once things had been very different. In his secret heart he felt he had less in common with her than with the nobles of Sardea. They, at least, knew how to keep their humans in their places.

Asea genuinely seemed to believe all the Scarlet nonsense about human freedom. Sardec had always held with his father’s entirely sensible view that the Scarlet faction had merely used it as camouflage to support their bid for power. Like most Terrarchs, he believed that politics was about personalities and that what people said was far less important than who they were.

Five hundred years ago, Asea and her ilk had used the Scarlet banner as a rallying point and split the Empire. Sardec did not believe it was entirely coincidental that the split had left them in charge of large, wealthy chunks of it. They would never have had the estates they enjoyed now under the Old Queen’s order. Asea was forcing him to reconsider this. Perhaps, in her case, expediency and idealism had walked hand in hand. Or perhaps she simply wanted him to think that.

He rode a little further. Traffic was thicker now. Lots of carters that had borne produce into town for Solace appeared to be sticking around. Doubtless they were going to sign on with the army once the campaign started. His steed whinnied as it caught the scent of wyrm just a few minutes before Sardec sensed its presence. He backed his destrier away down the street as the bridgeback lumbered into view. Its columnar legs were still wet, and its paws covered in reddish mud. Doubtless it has just waded across the river.

Looking up, he could see a palanquin on its back. Inside was a spectacularly beautiful Terrarch woman and her bodyguards. A white monkey on a gold chain capered along the outside of the howdah. Sardec raised his hat to her. She responded with a languid wave of her fan. Annoyance surged through him.

There was no law against a Terrarch bringing their wyrms into the city. It was just usually not done when the streets were likely to be crowded. That could cause a panic among beasts, livestock and humans, and one did have a responsibility about such things, after all.

It was only after a few moments that he realised a pair of humans were staring at him, most uncouthly. He did not like being the object of their idle curiosity. These men looked particularly unsavoury, wearing the garb of one of the barbarian hill-tribes.

“Be off with you,” he shouted, placing his hand on the hilt of his sword for emphasis. They glared at him almost defiantly for a moment before scooting into the mouth of an alley. It was funny but he could have sworn there was something like hatred in their eyes. There was something about the pattern of the plaid cloaks and headscarves they wore that nagged at him. It took only a few moments for him to realise what it was. They were of the same colour and design as those worn by many of the hill-men he had fought against so recently.

What were they doing here in town now, he wondered?

Chapter Twenty-One

Rik walked back into the brothel. Weasel and the Barbarian were still there, feet on the table, wine bottles in front of them. The Barbarian had a plump wench on his knee and was whispering something in her ear. Weasel played patience with a pack of cards. His knife lay unsheathed on the table in front of him, stuck in a massive wedge of cheese.

“Glad you made it back, Halfbreed” he said. “I was wondering where you were.”

“Anything come up?” Rik asked.

“One or two things. We need to have a little chat. Girl, go get us all something to drink, would you?” He tossed Rena another coin. Rik half expected her to protest, but it was obvious she was used to this behaviour and probably a lot worse from the men who frequented the house. As she departed, Weasel took Rik aside, ignoring Leon’s sharp look.

“I have a meeting with Bertragh set up for this evening,” he said. “He wants to see the books.”

“They are back at the camp.”

“We can use a sample.” Weasel considered for a moment. “I want you there. You know about these things. You can tell how serious he is and what he’s likely to pay.”

“I don’t like it. What if this factor just decides to take the book? He’ll have muscle close by. They always do.”

“There’s three of us, and one of them is him,” said Weasel, pointing to the Barbarian. “We’re none of us soft touches.”

“We might still be outnumbered.”

“Then we’ll fight or we’ll give it to him, and you’ll pay him a little visit later. Depends on the numbers.”

“I am touched by your confidence but we don’t know anything about this fellow. Factor’s mansions are like fortresses. Take my word for it. They live in them. They use them as warehouses. The place would not be any less secure if one of the First lived there.”

“Maybe you should scout it out then. It’s down by the river in the warehouse district. Sign of the moon and lion. And anyway we will still have the rest of the books.”

“I still don’t like it.”

“I am starting to think you don’t want to go ahead with this, Rik.”

“I want us to get our money and not our throats cut.”

“You’ll get no disagreements from me.”

“Where is the meeting?”

“Supposed to be at the mansion.”

“Change it.”

“Already tried that. The guy wants it at his house. Doesn’t want to bring money, where he doesn’t know it will be protected. Can’t say as I blame him?”

Rik tried to look at the thing from all angles. A thought struck him.

“Doesn’t matter then. Might be best to get a look inside anyway. Just in case.”

“I like that. You really think the books could be worth much?”

“They might be. All right! Tell him we’ll be there.” Rik looked at the wine bottle. Maybe it was clouding Weasel’s thinking. “Though we might well end up dead.”

“Makes life interesting,” Weasel said eventually.

“We’ve already maybe got the hill-men after us. Life is interesting enough.”

Weasel grinned. “Thing’s done. It’s too late to worry about it now.”

“It’s never too late to worry.”

“Well, it’s too late to do anything about it,” said Weasel.

“We’ve got some time to kill then.”

“That we do. Got any plans?”

“I’ll take a walk down by the river,” Rik said. “Won’t do any harm to scope things out.”

That evening, as they approached Bertragh’s mansion, Rik stopped short and began to draw his pistol.

“What is it?” Weasel asked, a knife appearing as if by magic in his hands. The Barbarian had his sword out in one swift flickering motion. They glared around them like wary wolves. The linkboy, palpably nervous, appeared to be deciding whether to make a run for it. Rik restrained him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Thought I heard something,” Rik said. If there had been somebody there, he was gone now. Rik wished that Leon was there to watch their back-trail but this was not something he could be let in on.

They waited but nothing happened. Rik looked at the others. They seemed a little spooked. He gazed up at the mansion. It was still the same combination of warehouse, palace and fortress he had inspected earlier in the day. The factor and his people lived at the front. The warehouse opened out on the river and a side street where goods were loaded. The walls were thick and the roofline was encrusted with gargoyles. A lot of money had been spent on this old place. The sign of the Moon and Lion was illuminated by a lantern above it.

“I say we go in,” said Barbarian. “I am not scared of some wizened old merchant.”

“It’s his bodyguards I am worried about,” said Rik. “And any Terrarchs he may report us to.”

“Are you in or out, Rik? I am going in.” Weasel sounded determined.

It was obvious that whatever he said, Weasel and the Barbarian would go ahead. That being the case, he had best join them. There was no telling what nonsense the pair might get up to otherwise.


“Good.” Weasel strode forward and banged on the side door, the trade entrance to the warehouse area, not the living quarters. It was not long before they heard footsteps approaching. A viewing slot slid aside, and eyes peered out at them.

“Who’s there?” asked a voice. It did not sound like one that belonged to a querulous old merchant.

“We’ve something for Bertragh. A book he’s interested in.”

There was a sound of locks being undone and bolts being slipped aside. A lantern showed from within. A large burly man held it. He looked and sounded local, not like a hill-man, Rik was pleased to note. Behind him were half a dozen other bruisers. A couple of them held loaded pistols. It was obvious that trust was in short supply around here, and no one was taking any chances.

“You can put the guns away, boys,” said Weasel. “We don’t want any trouble.” Suiting action to words, Weasel returned his knife to its wrist sheathe. The Barbarian and Rik only started putting back their weapons once the bodyguards did the same with theirs.

The door closed. Bolts and locks clinked into place. Trepidation surged through Rik. Even the whole company of Foragers would not be able to get through that. Not without a keg of gunpowder or a battering ram. It was too late now to do anything about it, he told himself. They were committed. The leader of the bodyguards gestured towards a distant light.

“The boss is in the counting house.” He led the way and assumed they would follow. A couple of the bodyguards fell in behind them. The others remained by the door. The warehouse area was huge, with a high ceiling; shafts of moonlight filtered in through high narrow skylights. It smelled damp and he could hear the river gurgling by outside. Piles of sacks layered high formed small hills. Aisles led between them, all as regularly laid-out as the streets of the Terrarch Quarter. Barrels lined the walls. Some smelled of salt meat, others of vinegar, others of booze. The warehouse seemed well-filled, most likely with the sort of things that would supply the army. Somebody around here was going to profit from the coming war.

The counting house was a small, square area, roofed and walled off. Inside were tall stools and long high desks containing inkstands and quills. Massive ledgers lay atop each. In the corner was a massive strongbox. Rik recognised the type. It was bound with locks both magical and mechanical. Difficult but not impossible to bust, he judged.

It looked like the clerks had gone home for the night, all except the chief clerk, a small wizened man who sat behind the lowest of the desks in a stuffed armchair, his face underlit by an open topped lantern. The man’s pince-nez glasses caught the light. The fringe of white hair around his head, his rosy cheeks, and small neatly trimmed spade beard gave him an air of gnomish good cheer. His twinkling smile added to his benevolent appearance. It was a few moments before Rik realised that this small, conservatively dressed man was Bertragh, the factor himself.

“You brought the sample?” he said. His voice was surprisingly deep and pleasant, with the cultured accent of a priest or a well-schooled actor.

“Aye,” said Weasel. Rik noticed that the richer and better educated the company, the more peasant-like Weasel became. He supposed it helped put them off-guard, if they thought they were dealing with a bumpkin.

“That will be all, Malek. You can wait outside. I will call you if I need you.”

Malek nodded and gave his employer a grin. Rik filed that away. Bertragh was obviously a man who inspired loyalty. He was not lacking in self-confidence either, since he had no fear of being left alone with the three of them. Or maybe he was just letting them know that he was dealing with them above board. Give trust to get it. Subtle bastard, Rik thought. He supposed Bertragh had to be. Nobody got to be the factor of one of the Great Houses otherwise.

From inside his tattered green tunic, Weasel produced one of the volumes they had collected in the mine. It looked unimpressive enough in its leather binding. A slight disparaging smile quirked Bertragh’s lips. “Is this it?” he asked.

“There’s more,” said Rik. “This is just a sample.”

Weasel nodded his support. He was out of his depth here though, Rik thought, since he had no idea what the books contained. No doubt Bertragh sensed this. He shook his head ever so slightly, adjusted the wick of the oil lamp and sat himself down at his desk. He pushed the book away slightly as if he had already decided it was not worthy of his attention. Either he was a very good dray-trader, Rik thought, or it really wasn’t. Under the circumstances, it seemed better to assume the former.

“Take a look,” said Weasel encouragingly, obviously determined to play the game as well as his handicaps would allow. Rik decided not to support him. The merchant rejecting the books suited him fine.

“Do you know what these contain?” Bertragh asked. He obviously doubted it. He’s fishing for information, Rik decided. He wants to know exactly how much they know.

“They are grimoires,” said Weasel confidently and convincingly. You did not get to be as good a card player as he was without some ability at bluffing. “They belonged to a sorcerer.”

“And may one ask how they fell into your hands?” asked the merchant. His tone was pleasant but his gaze raked pointedly over their uniforms.

“One may not.” Weasel responded in an amiable tone that mocked Bertragh’s accent. The factor gave him a sharp look.

“If you are not interested,” Rik suggested, “perhaps, we should seek out someone who is.”

“I will glance over them,” said the merchant. His tone was that of a man doing a favour for a friend. He adjusted his glasses on his nose, glanced up and smiled at them avuncularly and then opened the volume. The effect was not what Rik had expected. His face paled, and his eyes went wide. He flipped the leaves over quickly and leaned forward. His breathing was fast and panting. He kept turning the pages, moving quickly towards the end of the volume, and then closed it with a snap.

Got you, thought Rik, not entirely happy with the way things were going but caught up in the deal making in spite of himself.

Bertragh pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and began mopping sweat from his forehead. He tried for his smooth and confident smile again but he was fooling nobody. A ghastly rictus contorted his face, and a near religious look of exaltation was in his eyes. At that moment, he looked like Gunther delivering one of his messages from the Prophets, although he tried very hard to hide it. What could possibly have such an effect on a man as smooth as this merchant, Rik wondered. Any doubts he had ever had about keeping the books vanished. He wanted desperately to know what was in them. Now all he had to do was find a way of keeping his hands on them.

“There are more like this one?” Bertragh asked. There was a slightly strangled quality to his voice. Sweat beaded the bald dome of his forehead. His glasses reflected the light of the lamp, giving his face an almost demonic look. Rik shuddered and told himself he was imagining things.

“Oh yes,” said Weasel. He was grinning broadly now, knowing that he had been dealt a good hand even if he did not understand all the rules of the game. The Barbarian chewed the ends of his moustaches nervously, not understanding what was going at all but sensing the excitement.

“You have them with you?”


“Can you bring them to me?”

“Perhaps. If you are certain you want them.”

“I might take them off your hands.” Bertragh tried to sound casual but it was obvious he wanted them as desperately as a virgin boy wants his first woman. Weasel shrugged.

“There are other people who might want them too.” It was the oldest and most obvious of ploys but Bertragh went after it like a fish going for a nice fat maggot on the end of a hook.

“How much do you want for them?”

“How much are you offering?” Weasel asked.

“If the books are all in as good condition as this one there is gold in it for you.”

“How much gold?” said Weasel.

“Say one gold piece per volume.”

“Let’s say five royals per volume,” said Rik. He did not expect the merchant to go for that. One royal was more than most people would see in a year. Bertragh appeared to consider.

“Very well. I will have to consult with my patron but I think we can work something out. You will leave the volume with me, of course, so that my patron can inspect it.”

Weasel just stared at him fish-eyed.

“I will pay you the five gold for it. Consider it a deposit. If you give me a moment I will get the money from my strongbox.” He rose from the desk. There was something desperate and almost inhuman about his appearance.

Weasel shrugged again. Rik leaned forward and scooped up the book. Weasel and the Barbarian looked at him in surprise. He needed a quick explanation for them.

“The books are worth more as a complete set,” he said. “If for any reason, this deal falls through, it would be best if we had them all.”

The Barbarian looked a little shocked at the loss of his gold but Weasel gave a faint smile and an even fainter nod of understanding. Bertragh’s response was once again not what Rik would have expected. The factor looked at him with murder in his eyes. For a moment, Rik was convinced that the merchant was going to call his guards and order them to take the book away from him by force, then with an effort of will, he got himself back under control, and became almost a parody of the urbane man he had been when they entered.

“As you wish.” He appeared to consider for a moment, and then added hopefully. “We could consider the royals a deposit. I would return the book if you returned the money.”

“Suppose we were to be robbed on our way home,” said Rik. “We would be unable to repay you. All manner of things can go wrong. Best to let things stand as they are.”

Bertragh gave what he obviously hoped would be taken as an understanding nod. “You will bring the rest of the volumes tomorrow?”

“It is Solace,” said Rik.

“But we can delay the festivities for a while,” added Weasel smoothly. “Perhaps tomorrow evening we shall all have something to celebrate about.”

“Till tomorrow then, gentlemen.”

Once they were outside, they looked at each other. Weasel burst into uproarious laughter. The Barbarian joined him.

“We’re rich,” he said. We’ll see about that, thought Rik, more determined than ever to find out what was in those books. If they could get the sort of response they had from a man like Bertragh they must be worth more even than the merchant was prepared to pay for them.

Chapter Twenty-Two

“You are sure these were Alzibar’s books?” Zarahel asked, glancing at the merchant. He told himself he should not be too surprised that Bertragh had been approached. In a town the size of Redtower there were very few markets for such texts. As a lodge member of the Brotherhood of the Basilisk, Bertragh was always on the lookout for books of lore, to increase his knowledge and his standing with the other members and to add to the Brotherhood’s store of knowledge. The odds had favoured this when he had told the merchant to put out the word on the off-chance that the right people would hear it. He still was amazed it had worked so well though. Perhaps the Old Gods were with them in this after all. He had started to have his doubts.

He told himself not to get cocky. There was always the possibility of some Inquisition trap. One of the rival Brotherhoods might be involved. It never paid to underestimate the cunning of those sorcerous conspiracies. The organisations had not survived through a thousand years of Terrarch oppression by recruiting stupid men.

He thought of how long it had taken him to reach his current position, the layers of deceit he had needed to penetrate; the endless succession of oaths he had been required to swear and deadly missions he had been required to perform, the tests he had needed to pass. And he reminded himself he still had no idea how many levels lay above him and who ultimately he reported to.

He could see the sense of that. After all, of all the members of his cell, Bertragh, the leader, was the only one who knew who Zarahel was. The cell structure made the Brotherhood more difficult to destroy. No one member could betray too much.

He had to admit, he had still been shocked when Alzibar showed up out of the purple, bearing all the required signs and talismans to command his obedience. He had never expected a Terrarch to be a member of the Brotherhood although the Exalted sorcerer had swiftly convinced him of his sincerity and the actuality of his position.

Some of the things he had let slip had been disturbing though. Alzibar had been in the East, had spent time in the Dark Empire and seemed to feel some loyalty to it. Zarahel was not reassured by the thought that ultimately the whole organisation might be a tool of Sardean foreign policy, that the money and the weapons he had supplied the hill-men with had come from the East, and not secret human benefactors.

“I am sure. His mark was on the folio page. The text was written in Exalted Script. It was the third volume of a set of what I am absolutely certain is the Book of Skardos annotated by our Brother Alzibar himself.”

“And you let them walk out of your warehouse with it?” Try as he might, Zarahel could not keep the anger out of his voice. He was irritated. His familiar had started biting him. The bites themselves were not so bad; they were quite pleasurable in fact. In small doses the beast’s poison was a euphoric drug but small itchy blisters had risen everywhere he was bitten. And he wanted those books very badly. It had been bad enough when he believed them lost forever, but to know they still existed and that this fool had let them go…

“What else could I do? It was only one volume and they have cached the rest away somewhere.”

“You could have held them and sent word to me. Believe me I would have made them give up their secrets.”

“Perhaps.” For all his bookish appearance there was steel in Bertragh. “They did not look like men who would have given up without a fight. They were armed.”

“You had half a dozen bodyguards within call”

“They might have been overcome. All three of the soldiers might have been killed.”

“You might have been killed, you mean. My hill-men were upstairs. So was I. You could have sent for us. Believe me, I could have over-powered them myself if need be.”

“You told me you prefer not to be seen. And I would prefer our association to remain secret. It would not have done to have those soldiers witness a Selari factor consorting with hill-men.”

“No witnesses would have survived,” said Zarahel.

Bertragh gave him a cold smile. “Many things could still have gone wrong. If those men died you would have been none the wiser about what they knew. This way we are certain to get what we want.”

Zarahel could see the wisdom of what the factor was saying. Diplomacy seemed called for. “Forgive me, my friend. It is merely excitement and anticipation that made me speak that way. You did the right thing.”

“We will get the books quickly enough. Those soldiers will sell them to us. Why would they not? We are offering them a lord’s ransom.”

Zarahel considered this. “There might be some who would come asking questions if three common soldiers show up with so much money.”

“I have thought about that. Let them bring the books and then you can do with them what you will.”

Zarahel grinned. “And you will get your gold back.”

“An excellent arrangement, don’t you think?”

“Most excellent. Who will care if three soldiers show up dead in the Pit? Especially if they are ones who were known to have hill-men seeking vengeance against them.”

Rik walked through the gloom, ignoring the chatter of his comrades. Events were moving beyond his control. It looked like he would have to give up the books to the factor. A small part of him was almost relieved. He would swap the texts for money, and enjoy the spoils for a little while. But part of him seethed with a barely suppressed rage to possess them. Their effect on the merchant shouted that they were a thing of great value. Bertragh’s attitude virtually spelled out that they contained secrets worth more than gold.

A look at his companion’s faces told him that there was no way he could ever make them appreciate this. They wanted the money, and were happy with the prospect of getting it. Perhaps they were right. Perhaps the lust for the thing he felt was a warning to Rik. Perhaps the books were a danger to his immortal soul. Perhaps the price of their secrets was more than any man should pay, and they should best be left to the merchant or his master.

And yet, deep within himself, Rik felt that even if the price was his soul, he would be willing to pay it. Just the thought of the possession of such diabolic knowledge thrilled him in a way that it should not. He found, much to his shame, that part of him was keen to possess forbidden secrets. That part thought even damnation might be preferable to his current place in the world. A sour smile quirked his lips. At least then, he would be somebody, he thought.

This was a futile exercise, he realised. Even if he owned the books, he was a long way from being able to use them. He had neither the skills to decipher the text nor the power to invoke any of the secrets the text might contain. Should he keep the books, he would most likely still be a nobody, a worm looking up at the stars. A strange soft despair gnawed at him, even as he listened to the boasting of his comrades.

At that moment a sense of the wrongness of things overtook him. It was not right that he or any other man should be made to feel this way. There was something deeply flawed with the ordering of the world when anybody’s spirit could be so crushed down by the way things were. He felt the first stirrings of the rage that the Clockmaker must have felt, and all the other rebels he had fought. Somewhere, somehow, he thought, things had to change. This world would have to be put right, and somehow he would have to find a way to contribute to that.

The moment passed, leaving him feeling strangely empty. The world did need to be put right, he thought, but not just yet. The doorway of Mama Horne’s emerged from the darkness. Now there were diversions to be had, and a mind to be put back to sleep.

Rena was waiting for him.

Sardec strode the boundaries of the camp and looked up at the stars. It was the last night of Mourning and he felt the need of prayer and contemplation. Down below he could see the lanterns of the sentries. From the hilltop, he could see the stars emerge through a break in the clouds.

It came to him then that those were not the stars of Home. They were not the stars under which his people had been born and under whose light their civilisation had been raised up. The moon in the sky was not the orb that had filled the night of Al’ Terra. It was like it but not exactly the same, just as this world was like the home-world but not exactly so.

He paused for a moment and spoke a prayer. He knew of the discussions of the mages and philosophers who claimed that all the worlds of the great cosmos were the same world, and all of them were in some ways twisted reflections of all the others. He had heard the claims all worlds were pale shadows of some central and perfect world.

He was not in a position to know. He knew only that the Shadow argument was a heresy that had bedevilled his people ever since they set foot on this world. Certain sects claimed that if this world was but a shadow of home, it must belong to the great enemy, and that his people were tainted by their mere presence here.

Certainly such an interpretation was easy to support. His people were diminished. Their numbers were increasing once more but their purity was lessened. It was almost as if the presence of so many men had contaminated them by their nearness, and the Terrarchs were becoming more like the lesser breed they must live alongside. They were losing sight of their glorious past, and becoming dwellers in this tawdry age. Perhaps there was some way of regaining their former glory but he could not see it. Only by passing once more through the Eye of the Dragon and reclaiming their ancestral home could they hope to do that, and this was an impossibility. Even could they overcome the Princes of Shadow, Al’ Terra could no longer be the place it once was. It had been tainted by the victory of the Shadow.

It was said that the people of the East thought differently now, and bent all their thoughts to opening the forbidden paths back to Al’Terra and cleansing their home-world. He wondered how much of that was Scarlet propaganda and how much the simple truth. Maybe Arachne’s people had the right of it anyway. Perhaps it would be better to pass through the gate once more, to conquer or die in a final blaze of glory. Surely that would be preferable to this long, slow fading away.

He told himself that these were gloomy thoughts, and although perhaps suitable for the last night of Mourning in that sense, they were inappropriate for a time when he should be considering the sacrifices of the Fallen, and the Promises the Dragon Angel had made for the future. Had she not said she would return, and lead her people once more to their destiny? He knew he should have more faith, but he knew he did not live in a time that reassured the faithful, that there was something awry in the state of the world, and that many things would have to be set right once more.

He reached the top of the hill, and considered the camp below him. He could hear the bellowing of wyrms, and caught their acrid scent on the wind. Beyond the camp he could see the town. The great rotating lantern atop the Dragonspire burned bright and fierce, ready to guide any night-flying dragon rider to the temple. The tower atop Asea’s palace blazed with a light to rival it, as if the Lady of the First was at this very moment working some sinister and powerful sorcery.

Tomorrow was Solace. Tomorrow he would attend Asea’s ball and see her once more. She was a daunting figure but, now he had time to consider, there seemed to be undercurrents to the situation that were intriguing, if she were not just leading him on for her own unguessable purposes.

He decided that he did not like being a fish on the end of anyone’s line. He did not like the feel of being out of control.

Tomorrow was Solace, he repeated to himself, feeling a faint thrill of anticipation, a time of license and extravagance when anything was possible. When masked revellers caroused in the streets, and sometimes even the most restrained Terrarch lay with human.

That thought excited him, and he wished that it did not.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Rena surprised Rik by handing him a package. She smiled and looked a little embarrassed as if she half expected him to reject it but he took it from her hand and rose from the bed. They were in the same room in which he woken the previous day. This was getting to be a habit, he thought. He was not sure if he liked the idea. Sabena had left him wary of being close to any woman.

“What is it?”

“A Solace Gift,” she said. Now he felt a little embarrassed. He had nothing to give her but some coin. It was not something he had expected from one of Mama Horne’s girls.

“Thank you.”

“Open it if you like.” He unwrapped the package and discovered a small prayer crystal on a copper chain. It was inscribed with Malok, the Elder Sign of protection. He performed a swift valuation and judged that it had probably cost the girl all the money he had given her and perhaps a bit more.

“This was unnecessary,” he said with more coldness than he intended. Malok was a sign traditionally given by parents, wives or sweethearts to those going into peril. He was more touched than he cared to let on. No one, not even the Old Witch, had ever given him such a gift before.

“I wanted to give you it. The spell-carver said it would keep you safe on your travels. It’s a very powerful ward, he said. And you are going to war.”

“Then I thank you for it, and am glad to have it. I am sorry but I have nothing to give you in return.”

“I did not give you it in expectation of anything of the sort,” she said. “I just want you to live and come back so that maybe I can see you again.”

She was obviously hoping for him to say something. Something more was going on here than he had expected. Things had become more ambiguous than the simple commercial relationship of soldier and brothel girl, even he was prepared to admit that. He had been half-looking for her when they had come back to Ma Horne’s last night and he had not been surprised when she approached him.

“I am sure you will see me again,” he said, the lie being easier than anything else, for he was not sure whether he wanted to do so, or to even acknowledge the small claim she seemed to be making on him. It was perfectly possible, he told himself, that he would march away from here and never see her again, and not regret it at all, but now was not the time to mention that.

She grabbed him and kissed him with more emotion than he expected and it came to him that she was not really seeing him at all, but the promise of something that she held in her own mind. There was no way she could really know him. If truth be told, there was no way he wanted anybody to really know him. He was certain that if they did, they would be horrified.

“I worry about you,” she said and then shut her mouth swiftly as if she had said too much.

“There’s nothing to worry about.”

“There’s the hill-men. There’s whatever strange business you and your friends are involved in. There’s the fact you are going to war soon.”

“If I don’t worry about them, why should you?”

“That’s all the more reason to worry. Put the prayer crystal on.” Somewhat reluctantly he did so, and he had to admit he felt better for it.

“This must have cost you a fortune,” he said. “Let me pay you for it.”

“No,” she said swiftly. “It’s a gift. I don’t want anything for it. Such things should be given freely and unstintingly to be effective. That’s what the spell-carver said.”

“He would. It lets him jack up his prices and claim it will increase the effectiveness of his wares.”

“Are you always so cynical about everything?” He considered it for a moment.

“Yes,” he said at last.

“Maybe you should try being less so. The whole world is not your enemy.”

“Maybe.” She playfully punched him and they wrestled on the bed, until their play turned into something else entirely.

“Good morning, Halfbreed” said Weasel as Rik and Rena entered the saloon. He sat alone at the table playing patience. The girls he had been with the night before were nowhere to be seen.

“A pleasant Solace to you,” said Rik.

“We should get back to the camp, pick up the stuff and get ready for Solace night.”

“It’s going to be a big party,” said Rena. “Solace always is.”

Weasel produced some coin. He tossed it to the girl. “Go get yourself a nice mask,” he said. “I want to talk with your boyfriend alone.”

“More of your mysterious business?” Rena asked.

“You guessed it — now scat!”

Rena went. Weasel looked at Rik. Rik met his stare openly.

“You been telling her anything?” he asked. “Men sometimes say things as they shouldn’t when they are a-bed with a pretty lass.”

“It’s the Barbarian you should worry about. You know me better.”

“Aye, I do.”


“So why do I feel there’s something I should know about?”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s something odd going on with you right now, Rik.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Me neither. Something’s bothering you, something about the books. I noticed it last night.”

Weasel was acute. Rik had to give him that. The man’s instincts were very sound. Rik considered his reply carefully.

“This whole business makes me uneasy. These are magician’s books. Who the hell wants a dark sorcerer’s books? I think this might be Brotherhood business. I think Bertragh might be Brotherhood.” Rik knew that invoking the ancient sorcerous conspiracies would make Weasel uneasy, and that would help explain his own unease. No one really knew what the Brotherhoods were about; mostly they were associated with tales of demon worship and human sacrifice. As he considered the matter, Rik thought his lie might even contain more than a grain of truth.

“He might be. In which case that’s a good reason to dump the books as quick as possible.”

“And I don’t like Bertragh,” Rik said. “And I don’t trust him.”

“Me neither but I like his gold, and if it talks to me sweetly I will believe it too.”

“He was too keen to buy. He agreed to our price too quickly.”

“You think we could get more?” Weasel asked.

“I think we could get dead.”

“Keep talking.”

“If these books are so valuable, and so filled with dark secrets, will he really want us around afterwards, our fists filled with gold, our guts filled with beer? We might talk to the wrong people.”

“Killing us might cause people to ask the wrong questions, too.”

“Not if there is an easy explanation of why we are dead. Not if we show up with our dicks chopped off and stuffed in our mouths.” Rik had just spinning out his excuses but he was surprised with how much sense he was making. These were things worth considering.

“How would Bertragh know to do that?” Weasel replied.

“Doesn’t it strike you as slightly suspicious that you hear about a potential buyer for our books about the same time as friend Vosh got a mouthful of himself?”


“Willing to bet your life on that?”

The former poacher appeared to come to a decision. “We’ll change the meeting place to somewhere of our choosing. If Bertragh is as keen as appears, he’ll go for it. We’ll have some of the lads on hand just in case.”

“Where?” Rik said.

“Here’s as good a place as any. We can rent a room. Nobody will be the least suspicious if some Foragers are in here.”

“Makes sense.”

“But we still need your share of the books, Rik. And you need to go get them. I say we both go together. Hopefully we can slip in and out of the camp without anybody noticing us.”

“What if we can’t?”

“We’ll slip out again after drums roll. It won’t be too difficult to do after dark. We’ve done it before.”

“We’ll get going as soon as I say goodbye to Rena. We should pick up some other stuff too. I have a plan, just in case things go sour.”

“Let’s hear it.”

Sardec allowed the Inn’s servants to dress him. They pulled on his boots, adjusted his jacket, held the mirror so he could make sure he looked immaculate. As he dressed he dealt with various small bits of business that had arisen. His costume for tonight’s Solace mask had arrived from the boutique. There were various small matters of bills due that he was required to sign for. There was a request for his attendance on the person of Colonel Xeno as soon as he had breakfasted.

After breakfast he visited the Colonel at his office in the Redoubt.

Xeno studied him as he entered, rose, bowed slightly and then returned to his desk. He finished signing some documents and said; “You visited Lady Asea yesterday.”

“I did, sir. You gave me permission.”

“And you discussed your recent mission with her.” Sardec saw where this was going now.

“Lady Asea is one of the First, sir, and she was curious.”

“So you told her what she wanted to know.” Xeno’s tone was silky. Sardec sensed the danger in it. He remembered some of the rumours that had flown around the officer’s mess about Xeno and Lady Asea. There was some long-standing animosity between them, over what no one seemed to know. Sardec guessed it was political. In politics Xeno was so conservative he was almost purple.

“I told her what seemed reasonable to tell her, sir.”

“And what was that?”

“I told her about the Ultari. I was hoping she could throw some light on the matter.”

“She certainly seems determined to. She has a ripjack in her cage about Uran Ultar and someone trying to reawaken him. She sent me a message about it this morning.”

“Perhaps someone is, sir.”

Xeno steepled his fingers and looked up at the ceiling. He let out a long sigh. “Yes, Lieutenant, perhaps someone is. That is why you shall be accompanying the Lady Asea back to the ruins of Achenar as soon as she finds it convenient.”


“The Lady Asea requires an escort into the mountains. You and your men were the last ones at the site she wishes to visit. It seems logical that you should be the one to accompany her. Don’t you agree?”

“Indeed, sir, but we are mobilising for intervention in Kharadrea.”

“A trip into the mountains will not take too long, I hope. We can’t have one of the First wandering around on her own in such dangerous territory, not with the hill-men all stirred up now, can we?”

“You are correct, sir. When must my men be ready?”

“She is hosting her famous Solace Ball this evening, so I doubt the Lady Asea is going to be ready to travel before tomorrow. The men can have their Solace leave. After that, be ready to go.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And Lieutenant Sardec…”


“Next time please be a little more careful before discussing your duties with anybody not in this regiment. No matter who they are.”

“I will, sir.”

“That will be all, Lieutenant.”

Chapter Twenty-Four

Getting in and out of the camp proved easier than Rik had expected. No one had stopped them from getting back to his bothy and claiming his rucksack. A quick check to make sure everything was still in place, to pick up some of his special gear and they were ready to head back.

At the gates the sentries had checked their passes with a mixture of resentment and envy but they had done nothing to stop them. Now they were back in Mama Horne’s, drinking deep and preparing for tonight’s meeting. Weasel had booked the room. Rik had written a note concerning the new arrangements to Bertragh and read the merchant’s tetchy reply to his compatriots. There was not a lot else they could do now except wait.

“That should be the last,” he told Weasel and the Barbarian, pointing to their full wine cups as he rose to seek out Rena. “You’ll need your wits about you tonight.”

“My wits are always about me,” said the Barbarian.

“Half of them anyway,” said Weasel. Rik was disconcerted, though, that they paid attention to him. Weasel gulped down his goblet’s contents and then shouted for chai. He was obviously more nervous than he looked. Rik was not surprised. Not only was he looking forward to taking possession of a small fortune, he was anticipating getting rid of something that could get them all burned at the stake if the Inquisition caught them.

Outside in the street, preparations were well under way for the Solace carnival. From a hundred households came the smell of frying fish and cinnamon scented wine. Children ran everywhere wearing masks of beasts and monsters and demons. Incense burned in the small shrines in every shop front. People flowed past in their temple best, heading for the mid-day service. At moonrise, Mourning would officially be at an end and the food and drink would flow. For quite a few people staggering out of the grog-shops, it looked like it had finished already.

“Do you want to go to temple?” Rena asked.

Rik shook his head. “I stopped going a long time ago when Leon and I busted out of the orphanage.”

She gave him a sidelong glance then returned to looking at the children skipping in a ring around the pig rummaging in one of the garbage mounds. “You never knew your mother and father?”


“You know anything about them?”

“They said my father was an Exalted and my mother was a street girl but how could they know. I talked to one old woman who remembered my mother being brought to the poorhouse. She claimed she gibbered something about a Terrarch and blasphemy as she gave birth.”

“Couldn’t you ask your mother?”

“She died while I was being born. Or so they said. You never know. Maybe she ran off afterwards. These things happen.”

“How can you think that of your own mother?”

“I was born in Sorrow, remember? A hundred worse things happen every day.”

She reached out and took his hand as though in sympathy. He wanted none of it, and let her hand go. He found himself oddly angry without knowing why. He thought he had come to terms with this all a long time ago.

“You’ve known Leon a long time then,” she said, obviously trying to change the subject. A young boy in an angel mask fled screaming from two girls garbed as demons. He bounced off Rik as he raced passed. Automatically Rik checked his purse, but nothing was taken. Rena noticed the action.

“You’re very suspicious.”

“I’ve known Leon since we both could walk,” said Rik choosing to ignore the statement. Somewhere in a side street someone was banging on some drums. Someone else was tuning up a fiddle. People were getting ready to have a party. They turned down another narrow alleyway. A man screamed at Rik and came straight at him with a hatchet. He stepped to one side and the man raced passed chasing a chicken down an even narrower alley. It looked like someone’s feast day meal was making a break for it.

Rik glanced around warily, keeping his hands near his weapons. He felt at home here in the maze of the Pit, in the way he did in Sorrow but this was not his home. The bully boys did not know him. The pickpockets would still chance their hands. It did not matter that it was Solace to them. The predators were always hungry. He half expected some of the Agante hill-men to come out of the side alleyways but they did not.

Ahead of him, he could smell the river, murky water and sewage flow mingling with the smell of plants and cooking food. They emerged onto a small muddy bank. On one side of them was a tavern built on a stilt-borne platform over the river. It was an extension of a stone building on the riverside, and some of the stonework flowed onto the platform itself. Rik had seen such buildings before. Inevitably they crumbled into the water.

On the other side of the river, he could see warehouses and wharves and barges tied up on the waterfront. Most of them were occupied only by skeleton crews and watchmen now. By nightfall even those would be drunk, and then the river gangs would come out. From here he could see Bertragh’s go-down. He wanted to get another look at it while there was still light. Later, he thought, they would take a walk by the place. It never hurt to take a second look.

“Let’s have a drink here,” said Rik leading Rena into the bustle of the tavern. The men here were poor and hard-faced, mostly dockside labourers and the sort of scum who scavenged a living by the river banks. Their clothes had a damp, sodden look, and mud trailed from the cuffs of their trousers. They were not used to seeing a young and pretty girl. Some of them licked their lips appreciatively. Rik grinned nastily and placed his hands ostentatiously on the hilt of his weapons. The tavern goers swiftly looked away.

They took a table on the platform overlooking the river, and Rik called for grog. Rena declined asking for small beer. Rik paid for both and told the tavern-keeper to leave the bottle. Coin changed hands.

“What are you thinking?” asked the girl.

Why did women always ask you that, Rik wondered? “I was thinking about those boats. A lot of them are going to be robbed by dawn tomorrow if there’s anything worth taking on them.”

“Why do you always think about such things?”

“Upbringing, I guess. I saw a lot of that stuff happen in Sorrow.”

“There are poor people everywhere. Desperate enough to steal.” She said it as if it were somehow worse than selling your body on the street. Certainly it was in the eyes of the law. Property was a sacred thing to the Exalted and those who aped them. Crimes against property were treated with the same severity as heresy.

“Yes, there are,” said Rik.

“Is that why you became a soldier?” Rik did not want to explain to her the whole business with Antonio and Sabena. It was too depressing to recount, and you never knew, word of his presence might even reach the gang lord from here. Hopefully by now he had long forgotten Rik but it was never good to take chances with these things.


“Why then?”

“I needed a job.”

“A job that could kill you?”

“You can get killed crossing the road. You can get killed by robbers. You can get killed by the plague.” He saw by the way she winced that he had opened an old wound. “Sorry.”

“No matter.”

“It’s better to be the man carrying the gun, than the man whose pig is carried away by the man with the gun.”

“So I have heard.”

“I’ve gone hungry a lot less since I became the Queen’s Soldier.”

“Is that all that matters to you? Aren’t you proud to serve the Queen?”

“Not particularly.” He realised he was being disagreeable to her, was challenging the things she believed in, and he wondered why he was doing it? The answer came to him quickly enough. She was judging him for not living up to her ideals, and he did not like being judged. He fumbled for something to say. Before he could think of anything, she said:

“I heard a preacher once. He said we were all soldiers. He had been one himself. You could see. His leg was wooden. His hand was a hook. I don’t want you to end up like that.”

“He was one of the lucky ones,” Rik said, and regretted it at once. “He wasn’t a beggar.”


“What did he say?” Rik asked to distract her.

“He said we were all soldiers in the war between good and evil. Do you think there is such a war?” She made it sound like it was a very daring question. He supposed it was to her.

“The temple says so.”

“I do. He said that since the worlds were created, God has fought with his Shadow. The preacher said they have fought since the dawn of time and will fight till Worlds’ End. Each of us is a soldier in that struggle. Every good word, every good deed, every pure thought is a bullet fired for the Lord. Every bad word, bad deed, bad thought is a sword wielded for the Shadow. The battle is very close. Each of us can make the difference.”

“That sounds very close to heresy. Doesn’t the temple predict the Light’s inevitable victory?”

“He said that the Light would win, but it would only do so when the balance was tipped ever so strongly in its favour. And he said the Shadow would triumph many times only to have the Light shine again. He said there had been many such times in the past. Like before the Terrarchs came with the Truth.”

“Is that what they came with?”

“Oh yes, it is. But the thing that has always stayed with me is this. The preacher said that on the last day we will all be judged. All our good deeds and all our bad deeds will be weighed by the Angel of Justice. Those of us whose good deeds outweigh the bad, will be reborn in Light. Those of us who were soldiers of the Shadow will go to the Pit.”

“I thought we were already there,” said Rik. She looked terribly serious and he wanted to distract her.

“He meant the Bottomless Pit, the Place of Torment.”

“I was joking.”

“I sometimes think I am going there. I have been very bad. Look where I work. Look what I have done.”

She looked as if she were about to cry. He touched her hand. “What choice did you have?”

“We always have a choice, the preacher said. Always.”

“Sometimes all our choices are equally bad. Trust me, I know.”

“If God is so good, why is this world so wicked?” she asked.

“I asked a priest at the orphanage the same thing once,” said Rik.

She looked at him curiously. “What did he say?”

“He beat me with a stick.” He tried to smile, but he felt it slipping. At that moment he felt as if his face was melting and resetting into something strange and unnatural. He glanced away because he knew her smile was a mirror of his own.

A barge drawn by a wyrm and decorated in the most ornate fashion came round the bend in the river. It had been chartered by a party of Terrarchs or perhaps it belonged to one of them. It was a big craft with a small orchestra playing at the prow and a group of masked and costumed Exalted chatting and drinking in the rear. Armed guards watched from the bow. A smaller barge with more armed men aboard followed.

“They’ve started early,” he heard someone say.

“It would be lovely to be one of those ladies,” said Rena. She seemed entranced by their appearance. Her smile looked more natural now. “Look at those gowns.”

He felt a sudden unexpected surge of tenderness for her. He was not sure why. Perhaps it was because she looked vulnerable and eager and at once frightened and excited by life. Perhaps it was just the grog. He reached out and touched her hand.

“It would be lovely to live like them,” he said, the thought of his unknown father and the birthright he had never known making his expression bitter. “But we cannot. The Terrarchs rule. We are the ruled. They own this world.”

Not for the first time he wondered what it would be like to live in a place and time where that was not the case. He tried to picture a world where he ruled. That was easy enough. All he had to do was imagine living like the Terrarchs. He tried to imagine how the world could become like that and his imagination failed.

The Clockmaker had dreamed that dream too, and look what had happened to him. Perhaps the books held the secret. But he was about to lose those, and even the heavy pouch of money he would get in return did not seem like adequate compensation for the loss of that pitiful dream.

“I wish I had a gown like that,” she said.

“Maybe one day you shall.” Doubtless one day soon those discarded gowns or the fabric from which they were made would show up in the second hand shops.

“Do you really think so?”

“It’s possible,” he said. It was always better to err on the side of caution he had found. Hopes were easily dashed.

He drank some more grog and watched the boat disappear behind the bend in the river. The temple bells rang once more. It was time to get back to Mama Horne’s. There was a deal to be done, or spoiled if he could. And failing that there was the backup plan.

He made sure their route back took him by Bertragh’s house.

Chapter Twenty-Five

The costume was a good one, Sardec thought. The mask was one of the ancient hero masks, sculpted from greystone, and depicting the blade-dancer Xeimon. The robes were a formal court duellist’s such as the hero had worn before the Ten Towers Fall and the coming of the Princes of Shadow. It was an appropriate costume for Solace. Xeimon had been one of the Three Hundred and died heroically guarding the entrance to the Dragon Vale.

The coach brought him to the entrance of Asea’s mansion. He emerged along with several of his brother officers. Jazeray was garbed as a Temple River Pirate. Sardec hated to admit that its dandified swashbuckling appearance suited him but it did. The small domino mask allowed his handsome face and tiny perfectly sculpted chin-beard to be seen to best effect as well. Marcus and Paulus swapped jokes with him whilst sipping spirits from small silver hip-flasks. They were garbed as the Dragon Lords Wesalas and Arene. Both wore bronzed and verdigrised Dragon masks and long green robes. On their backs were representations of the mighty two handed runeswords the brothers had carried.

Servants brought the steps into place at the side of the coach. All around them humans garbed in their pitiful attempts at Solace costumes watched and even cheered. As was customary, Sardec took a handful of copper coins from his couch and cast them contemptuously into the crowd. They scrambled for them as if they were jewels. His brother officers did the same. Jazeray conspicuously added some silver to the mix before he vanished through the door with a flourish of his feathered hat. Sardec was ashamed to see one of the Elder Race playing to a crowd of humans like that but there was nothing he could do or say about it. From the corner of his eye, he thought he caught sight of some tribesmen in purple plaid. He dismissed them. After all, these might just be costumed revellers.

Ahead of him, he could hear a footman booming the names and titles of the guests as they entered the vast ballroom. He strode on himself, anxious at the prospect of seeing Lady Asea.

Drunken men in papier mache masks and costumes ranging from Dragon Knights to hill-men filled Mama Horne’s. Rik found the latter disturbing simply because they reminded him of Vosh’s death and the fact that he might be next. On a night like tonight any assassin wearing his tribal colours would just blend into the mass. None of the hill-men wore Agante colours but that did not mean much.

When he came through the door with Rena and pressed on into the throng, he was delighted to see half a dozen Foragers were in the saloon and looked more or less alert. Toadface gave him the thumbs up, and even Handsome Jan stopped fondling one of the bar-girls long enough to wink at him.

“Wait for me down here,” he told Rena. “I have some business upstairs.”

“Not another girl?”

“No. It’s business with Weasel and the Barbarian.”

“Don’t take too long about it then.”

“I’ll do my best.” He shoved his way upstairs to the private room they had booked earlier. He felt a little drunk but nothing that some coffee and water would not soon solve. He knocked on the door and heard the Barbarian bellow. “What’s the password?”

“There is no password, you moron. It’s me, Halfbreed.”

“That’s good enough!” The door opened and Rik was hauled inside by one massive hand. Weasel sat at a table with the books piled in front of him and a loaded pistol on top of the pile. The Barbarian breathed beer fumes all over Rik.

“So you finally showed up, did you? Come to get your share of the cash.”

“We haven’t got it yet,” said Rik. He checked to make sure his gear and the package of costumes they had bought earlier were where they should be. He strode across to the windows. They were shuttered and the atmosphere was close, filled with the stink of tobacco, beer, cold meat and unwashed bodies. He threw the shutters open and looked out. The noise of the street rushed in: music, singing, the bang-bang-bang of a string of fireworks being set off, the constant pealing of bells as even the priests celebrated Solace evening, the Promise of the Dragon Angel and the delivering of her chosen people from the Shadow.

Rik surveyed the streets below from the balcony. They were crowded. He looked up. You could drop from the rooftop onto the balcony, he reckoned, if you had a line wrapped around the chimneys up there. He looked at the balconies on either side. A brave man could leap from them onto this one, if he was prepared to risk his life. He glanced across the street. A sniper might be able to take a pot-shot from those windows across there, except that they were all already filled with revellers.

“I wish we had some caltrops to scatter on this balcony,” he said.

“Why?” Weasel asked.

“What are they?” roared the Barbarian.

“Nasty little spikes, set in spheres, stick into your foot if you are not careful,” said Weasel. “You think somebody might try to surprise us from there? Nobody knows we are in this room.”

“Except Mama Horne and half her staff.”

“Too late to change it now.”

“Maybe,” said Rik closing the doors. Briefly he considered moving the furniture to block the balcony entrance but then decided not to bother. If for any reason he needed to make a sudden exit, those nearby balconies were the only way out. He realised exactly how on edge he was now. He was proceeding with all the caution of a thief on the run in Sorrow. It was an instinctive reaction, he thought, and he trusted his instincts in matters like these. He had been right often enough about such things in the past.

“Relax, Rik,” said the Barbarian. “Nothing is going to go wrong.”

“I am glad that you are so confident. I will feel much better when the books are gone and we have our gold. I’ll feel better yet when we are back in camp with it,” said Weasel.

“I’ll second that,” said the Barbarian.

“I see the lads are downstairs,” said Rik.

“It’s good to have them on call if need be,” said Weasel.

“If there’s any trouble, I’ll handle it,” said the Barbarian.

“If there’s any trouble, you’ll probably cause it,” muttered Rik under his breath. He was more or less resigned to going ahead with the sale now. There was no way out of it that he could see unless he wanted to fight with Weasel and the Barbarian and attempt to take the books by force.

That was not something he could do. Aside from the fact it was madness, they were his friends and comrades. Killing them by stealth was not something he could consider for more than a passing moment, even if he could get away with it, which was doubtful. It looked like it was plan number two, he thought with more than a hint of trepidation.

There was a knock on the door.

“You get that,” said Weasel. The Barbarian strode over to one side of it. Weasel took the other. Rik strode to the door, decided that it was thick enough to stop a pistol ball, and said; “Who is it?”

“Somebody with an interest in books,” said a muffled voice. It was familiar. It sounded like Bertragh. Rik unlocked the door and stepped away from it. He had his pistol in his hand now, and a knife in the other.

The door swung open and a small figure stood there. It was wearing a very basic Solace costume and a mask in the face of some pig-faced demon. It had a small travel bag in one hand. Several massive burly figures garbed as ancient knights flanked it. The pig mask cocked to one side, and Bertragh’s voice said; “My, we are ready to do violence, aren’t we?”

“Come inside,” said Rik. “You can bring two of the bruisers with you. The rest can wait outside.”

Bertragh shrugged and entered. Two of his men followed. The rest looked like they were about to, but the factor sent them back with a gesture. Once in the room, he removed his mask and glanced around. “What delightful quarters.”

Rik locked the door. Weasel and the Barbarian placed pistols at the heads of the two bodyguards and took away their weapons. Bertragh studied this unworriedly. He beamed cheerfully and had there not been a bright, almost feverish gleam in his eyes, Rik would have said he was totally relaxed, so relaxed in fact that Rik suspected him of having been smoking witchweed.

“There’s no need for that, really,” said Bertragh. “We are all friends here.”

“Sometimes misunderstandings happen, even between friends,” said Rik. “Sometimes they can be fatal, and we are trying to avoid that.”

“A laudable ambition but quite unnecessary in this case.”

Weasel and the Barbarian gave the bodyguards a thorough search and then backed away. They carried a fair number of small pistols suitable for concealment, as well as larger ones, and two blades. Rik sat down in the chair on the other side of the desk. He gestured for Bertragh to take the seat in front.

“Now we can do business,” he said. “You have the gold?”

Bertragh reached inside his jacket. Instantly Weasel and the Barbarian were ready, pistols levelled.

“Carefully,” said Rik. He toyed with the pistol on the table-top. Almost accidentally it pointed at Bertragh. “We want no misunderstandings now.”

“Quite,” said the factor. “I am now going to take off my money belt. Please try not to shoot me while I am doing it.”

Rik found himself almost admiring the little man’s calmness and good humour. Clearly he was no stranger to high stakes negotiation. Bertragh hitched a broad canvas belt above the level of his britches, untied the drawstrings and let it fall onto the table with a heavy thunk. He opened it and a number of gold coins fell out. A large number. Rik picked one up weighed it in his hand. It felt like gold. It looked like gold. He scratched it with his knife. If it was gold plated the plating went deep.

“Those are gold regals,” said Bertragh. “You have my word on it.”

Rik believed him. He had held regals before and this was what they looked and felt like. They would pass with any merchant in the land. Of course, people would start asking questions if common soldiers started spending them. Rik mentioned this.

“I am sure your friend there,” Bertragh indicated Weasel with a jerk of his thumb, “can get some of his friends downstairs to change them.”

Weasel gave an almost imperceptible nod. Rik was not sure he wanted the coins changed just yet. They were a lot more portable the way they were.

“These are the books?” Bertragh asked. Rik nodded.

“Please, allow me to inspect them.”

“Be my guest.”

Sardec strode into the main ballroom. The footman boomed out his name and title. He stood for a minute to make sure everyone got a good sighting of him and then strode down into the guests.

Asea wore the garb of a Cobalt Mountain Witch. Her robes were long and intricate and intermingled with long chains of plaited gold at the end of which were small tinkling bells. Her mask was a mere domino, held onto her face by either paste or magic. Long gauntlets ending in raking claws covered her hands. It was an effective and striking ensemble. He bowed in response to her curtsey of welcome.

“I am hoping I may inveigle you into dancing me, Lady of the Mountains,” he told Asea.

“I am sure you can, heroic warrior,” she responded. “Come ask my favour when the orchestra starts.”

Sardec felt more than a hint of satisfaction. He would get the first dance. “You do not know how happy you have made me, Lady,” he said, and with another small bow strode off to join his fellow officers in the main hall.

Jazeray watched him with something like a sneer, although Sardec could sense his envy and his pique. It seemed he, too, had set his sights high.

“You look a little distraught,” he said.

“It is nothing,” said Jazeray. “The merest bagatelle, the slightest of setbacks. It shall soon pass.”

As a group they headed into the swirling mass. The orchestra took its seats on the dais at the end of the hall.

The factor picked up the book, scanned it, and put it down after a few minutes of careful observation. He appeared to be checking for missing pages, removed leaves, damage of any sort. He repeated the process with all the books in turn, until after a full hour, he was apparently satisfied. Occasionally, the men outside made enquiries after his well-being, and he reassured them. At the end of the time, his eyes were lit by an even more feverish light than before.

“I am satisfied, gentleman. We have a bargain.”

Rik counted the coins. There were sixty of them in all.

“One question,” said Rik. Bertragh stiffened almost imperceptibly.


“How did you know exactly how much money to bring?” The factor relaxed visibly, clearly he had been expecting either some objection or something far more difficult.

“The books are part of a set. I knew how many there would be if there was a full set.”

Rik shrugged. “Thank you.”

Bertragh reached forward with one hand. “We have a deal?”

Rik clasped it. It was cool and dry, skin like parchment. Briefly he considered squeezing the fingers very hard and attacking the man but that would have been madness. He let his grip loosen. “We have a deal.”

The merchant began to put the volumes into the leather satchel. They fitted almost exactly. Clearly, Rik thought, the man knew almost exactly what he was getting. It was an impressive display.

“You can go now,” said Rik. “We’ll keep your friends here for a little while and then let them go.”

The two bruisers began to object but quietened when they found loaded pistols pointed at them. Bertragh smiled at them reassuringly. “It’s all right, Leopole. The rest of the lads will take care of me, and I am sure our friends here mean you no harm. If I guess aright, it is their own safety they are concerned with.”

Rik nodded and opened the door. “Well, goodbye then, gentlemen,” said Bertragh. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you.”

A moment later, he was gone, leaving Rik with a curious feeling of anti-climax. That vanished when he saw the way Leopole and his partner looked at them. There was violence in his eyes.

Chapter Twenty-Six

Weasel looked at Rik and the Barbarian and smiled. “That went better than I expected,” he said. Despite Rik’s misgivings they had let the bodyguards have their weapons back and depart ten minutes ago and nothing untoward had happened since. Rik was just starting to relax. Weasel and the Barbarian finished counting their share of the coins.

“There’s a bunch of very hard men out there who know we have a lot of money,” said Rik. “I would not be at all surprised if they came looking for it.”

“Me neither, Halfbreed” said Weasel. His smile was disingenuous. “There’s so much treachery in the world.”

“Sad, isn’t it?” said Rik.

“But we’re rich,” said the Barbarian.

“For the moment,” said Rik, but he could not help smiling too.

“Best get our costumes on and get out of here then.” They donned the costumes and in a few minutes three men in papier mache dragon masks and vast red cloaks left the room.

Rik made sure his special pack was beneath his robe.

The Governor himself led the dancing. Sardec swirled around in the great figure of the quadrille with Asea in his arms. Her scent was as intoxicating as her beauty and he guessed it contained some subtle narcotic. He felt like saying this but he restrained himself. He was wary of using cliches.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“I understand that you wish to go into the mountains.”

“I see you have talked with Colonel Xeno.”

“So have you it appears.” She cocked her head to one side as she looked down on him. He felt she was judging him and he did not like that feeling.

“And to think I asked for you especially…” Was that mockery in her voice? He found that he disliked her intensely at that moment. She was too beautiful, too poised, too self-satisfied. The glitter in her eyes told him that she was reading him like a book.

“Why, Lady?”

“For the charm of your company, of course, and because you know where to find this mysterious mine.”

The intricate figure of the dance sent them spiralling into orbit around another couple. The male was Colonel Xeno. The female Sardec did not recognise at once, but she was tall with silvery hair and air of languid beauty behind her fox mask. She was garbed as a moon spirit, he realised.

“That is Midori of the Selari,” said Asea with just a hint of venom in her voice. “A distant cousin. She is our local beauty. A collector of rare books too.”

“I thought that was you.”

“I have no desire to be compared with her in any way.” She spoke softly but not so softly that her words were not audible over the music of the orchestra. Sardec wondered if she wanted Midori to hear her.

“Sheathe your claws,” he said, smiling as pleasantly as he could. “Why do you dislike her?”

“She is thoughtless, vain and cruel. She is the cousin of our dear Governor, and his mistress, and she wields a disproportionate influence because of it. She longs too much for the old days.”

“In short, she belongs to a different faction. Such is the way of things. I saw her yesterday I think. She was mounted on a great wyrm as she crossed the river, and accompanied by a screaming monkey. She seemed perhaps a little thoughtless in her chosen method of transport.”

“She is more than a little thoughtless. Doubtless you encountered her coming in from her estates. She was most likely dunning her factor Bertragh for more money.”


“She spends it as fast as he makes it. And he has a genius for business. Or so they say.” Sardec did not like the direction this conversation was taking. He did not like the thought of any Exalted being so dependent on the greasy commercial skills of a human, and he said so.

“It is a disgrace,” he said.

“It is no disgrace to employ the best servants.”

“But it is to be dependent on them. A master should rule, a servant should serve.”

“I have not said that Midori does not rule Bertragh.” There was a coldness in her tone that affected Sardec. He had said something to offend her and he was not sure what. Before he could ask her the music had stopped.

“When can we expect to leave?” he asked, bowing to her.

“Soon but there are some preparations I must make first.” She curtseyed and rose. Jazeray approached to ask for a dance. “I will make sure you are informed.”

Sardec was glad to get away, despite her beauty and the envious glances of the other males. Some things were just too complicated, he thought. He longed for simpler matters.

Rik strode by Rena without acknowledging her. She was dressed in the cowled and body-hugging robe of a Scarlet Witch, with only a small domino mask to cover her face. She did not recognise him in his present costume, and he was sorry about that, but he did not want to take any chances until he was certain that they were not being watched. Of course, any observers set to watch the corridor and stairs leading from their room would notice them, but it did not matter. He was hoping that they would.

He ducked out through the main door of the building after Weasel and the Barbarian, and headed down into a dimly lighted side alley. They stopped there for the moment, in the shelter of the arch, glanced around to make sure they were not being observed, and then shucked their costumes. Underneath, they had different costumes and another set of masks. The Barbarian was garbed as a mountain troll, Weasel as a river pirate, Rik as a Priest of the Gibellian sect. The Barbarian’s mask was a particularly impressive one, and Rik suspected he took a childish delight in it.

Moments later they headed out into the swirl of the crowd. The streets were packed even for a Solace Night masquerade. Everyone, no matter how poor, had some sort of costume, even if it was only a mask and a dyed robe. People swigged from bottles, sang, danced and chanted. Many smoked locoweed from water pipes. Children danced and played. Tonight they were allowed to join in the revels for as long as they could stay awake. Many clutched small dolls, or wooden toys. Some whipped tops in the street. Fireworks spurted skywards. An air of happiness filled the streets, communicating itself even to Rik despite his unease. He wondered where Leon was, and whether everything was going according to plan.

After the first round of dancing Sardec watched Asea glide off to talk with Midori. They retired to a small table on the edge of the ballroom and sat there, while servants brought them refreshments. Sardec watched her go for a moment, and then retired to the other side of the hall, where the officers lounged and chatted.

“I see you made quite an impression on the Lady Asea,” said Jazeray. There was a sardonic note in his voice that Sardec did not like in the slightest. Jazeray laughed a little too loudly and took another sip of his drink. He returned to discussing the entertainments they could find after the ball. It seemed there was a certain gambling house in the Pit where heavy stakes wagers were accepted and the whores were pretty. Marcus and Paulus listened eagerly. Sardec drank some more lunar wine. He felt his skin start to tingle. He felt wild and reckless and ready for anything. Most of all he wanted out of this mansion and away from the daunting Lady Asea. He wanted to regain a feeling of being in control of things.

“Perhaps you would care to join us?” Marcus asked. Sardec was on the verge of refusing when Jazeray said. “Prince Sardec is far too staid to lower himself to such base entertainments.”

“Perhaps I shall,” said Sardec, not sure exactly why he said it, but pleased to see the self-satisfied smirk vanish from Jazeray’s lips. “Now if you will excuse me, my brother officers, I think I shall mingle with the other guests.”

“By all means, mingle,” said Jazeray, with a sardonic quirk of his eyebrow.

“We shall send a messenger to tell you when we are leaving,” said Marcus. Sardec felt a strange lurch in the pit of his stomach. What was he getting himself into, he wondered?

Rik stopped a street vendor and bought several sticks of skewered meat roasted over charcoal, then along with his two companions headed back inside Mama Horne’s. They had taken Weasel’s share of the money to the goldsmith’s. Only he would have known where to find a man who would be open for business on a night like this. They had changed most of the money there, and Weasel had left most of his on deposit. Rik had kept some gold pieces. They were more portable than pouches of silver.

It did not look as if they had been spotted but it was difficult to tell whether they were being watched amid the madness of Solace.

A glance showed him there were many people garbed as hill-men in the street. A closer look told him that some of these people might even belong to the clans. That was not something that reassured him.

He headed back into Mama Horne’s. Inside he saw Rena. He was glad she was there. He walked over to her and bending over her shoulder kissed her on the cheek.

“Hello pretty girl,” he said.

“Hello, handsome man,” she said, recognising his voice. “I was wondering when your business would be over.”

“It’s not over yet,” he said, looking at the doorway, and wondering when Leon would return. “I just wanted to wish you a wonderful Solace and tell you that you should buy the dress you wanted.”

He pressed one of the gold coins he had gotten earlier from Bertragh into her hand. It was a small fortune, he knew, but for some reason he felt like making the gesture. He was not entirely sure why. He knew it was not from generosity, for he was not a generous man. It was in part because he was aware he would be doing something dangerous in the not too distant future, something that might lead to his death. If that was so, all the gold in the world would not make the slightest difference, and he wanted someone at least to have a pleasant memory of him.

She looked down into her hand, not quite realising what it was he had given her. He could almost see her taking in the queen’s head on one side and the date of minting on the other.

“Put it away before someone sees it,” he said.

“Is it real?”


“Where did you get it?”

“It’s loot.” Better to give her a story than tell her the truth or be evasive, he thought. Part of him knew it was madness. All he was doing was leaving a trail that the right eye could pick up on. Nonetheless the impulse to give was too strong for him. “I picked it up on campaign.”

“I don’t want it. You might need it.”

“I have more.” She pushed it back into his hand.

“I still don’t want it. It’s yours.”

“It’s yours now. I gave it to you.” He pushed both her hands together around the coin and then let go.

“You mean it?”

“If you don’t want it, give it away. I will not take it back.”

She leaned forward and kissed him. “Why?”

“You deserve a nice dress,” he said, neither wanting nor feeling capable of giving his real reasons. At that moment, he noticed that Leon has returned. He was garbed as the theatrical version of a river boatman. He waved urgently at Rik. It was time to get to work.

“I have to go,” he said.

“But you’ve only just got here.”

“I have work to do.”

“When will I see you again?”

Maybe never, he thought. “As soon as I am done,” he said. The look in her eyes told him that somehow she had known what he was really thinking.

Sardec strode into the small chamber. Colonel Xeno was there along with a number of ranking officers from the artillery and the hussars. Many of the junior officers were there too, standing at the edge of the group, hanging on to the words of their superiors. He paused for a moment to listen himself.

“I think we shall soon show the Kharadreans what’s what,” said the hussar colonel. “We damn well should have showed them it when Koth first showed his ugly red head.”

Sardec’s ears pricked up. Koth had been Orodruine’s General a century ago. His genius in the field had been instrumental in turning Kharadrea from a rebel province of the Old Empire into a full-fledged Realm.

“I believe several of us tried that, Ascogne,” said Colonel Xeno. “As I recall, it was Koth who handed them their heads.”

“By treacherous and unchivalrous conduct, my dear Xeno.”

“Do you seriously expect anything else from a human general?” That got a good natured laugh from the listeners until Xeno added, “And I notice that we have all adopted his methods now, and why not? He defeated every general both Queens sent against him.”

All eyes in the room were on the two colonels now. Other conversations had dropped to a murmur.

You are surely not a revolutionist, colonel?” That too got a laugh from the assembled party. Sardec did not laugh. He wanted to hear what Xeno had to say.

“No one could be further from it,” said Xeno. “I am merely pointing out a fact. Koth was never defeated in the field. Some say the Elder Race sued for peace because they knew he could not be.”

An angry murmur went around the room now. Xeno clearly had consumed a little too much wine. It was the only explanation for why he could suggest such a thing. Everyone knew that the humans could have been crushed by the Terrarchs if they had put forth their full strength. It was merely that casualties would have been so high it would have given the other side an advantage. Hence the peace and the use of Kharadrea as a buffer zone between the West and the Dark Empire.

“Nonsense,” said Ascogne. “We merely needed to prepare for the greater threat posed by the Dark Empire. A threat we will now crush, once and for all. The Scarlet Queen will have what is rightfully hers.”

That got rousing cheers from the officers, except Xeno and Sardec. Xeno took another sip of his wine. His eyelids drooped a little, but Sardec decided on close examination he was not drunk, perhaps he was even a little angry. He remembered something his father had told him once. Xeno had fought against Koth. His brother had died at the hands of Koth’s followers. It had not been a pleasant or heroic death either.

“I have heard the humans in Kharadrea are planning on declaring an independent republic where Man and Terrarch are equal. Like those mad lands over the Great Ocean.”

Now there was uproar. No one here believed such a thing possible. Sardec did not. It was unthinkable. The humans could no more be trusted to rule themselves than monkeys. It would be like giving a mob of gutter scum the keys to a mansion.

“We shall crush such heretical nonsense,” said Ascogne.

“Like we crushed Koth?” said Xeno.

“We were not even trying then. If our hands had not been tied we would have won.”

“Would we?”

“My dear Xeno, we have dragons. We have sorcery. We have our own well-trained humans. My boys are more than a match for any damned Kharadrean scum or Sardean slaves, I will wager. So are yours. And we have Lord Azaar leading us. He has never been defeated either.”

Sardec could almost read Xeno’s thoughts. For a moment, he seemed about to say that Azaar had never faced Koth, but he quite clearly decided it would be impolitic. His mouth snapped shut like a trap and then he said; “Obviously you are correct, my dear Ascogne. Let us have another drink and toast the health of Lord Azaar.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Ascogne.

Sardec felt a touch on his elbow. It was Paulus.

“Time to go,” he said.

“You saw where he went?” Rik asked Leon. Around them dancers crazed on wine and locoweed revelled through the streets of the Pit. Across from them in the mouth of an alley a man had a girl pinned against a wall. Her skirt was hiked up, her legs wrapped around him. His rear end pumped. A small crowd had gathered to watch them and shout encouragement. No one paid the slightest attention to Rik or Leon.

“They went straight back to the mansion. They used the trade entrance” Rik breathed a sigh of relief. At least he had some idea of what the inside of that place was like. It would have been a lot more difficult if they had gone somewhere else.

“You sure it was them?”

“They stayed on the street and they did not change their costumes. I never lost sight of them.”

“And they never caught sight of you?”

“What do you take me for?”

“A Sorrow street urchin who somehow tricked the Queen’s Army into taking him on!”

“Not much gets past you.”

“You did well and I am grateful.” He passed Leon a gold coin as well. He held it concealed in the cup of his hand and looked at it once before it vanished into his purse. Immediately Rik cursed this urge to give the money away that had suddenly come over him.

“Is that what I think it is, Rik?” They pushed out into the crowd of revellers. Somewhere off down an alley came the bang of fireworks and then the sound of a scream. At least Rik hoped it was fireworks. He kept his hand on his pistol just in case.

“It is.”

“That’s a lot of money for a simple thing.”

“Only half of it is yours. I want you to keep the rest for me.”

“Can do. Where did you get it?”

“Ask no questions, get no lies.”

“Enough said. You planning a high wire act?”

“Could be.”

“Want any help?”

“Not this time.”

“Maybe going to pay the factor a little visit? That’s ambitious. I didn’t think you had even cased the joint.”

“I spent some time inside it the other day.”

“No inside help though? No bribed watchmen or nothing?”


“You going mad in your old age? That’s not something you should do.” Rik wondered how much he should tell Leon and decided on as little as possible.

“He has something I want and tonight’s the only night I can get it.” That was not strictly speaking true. Rik could burgle the mansion any night, but there was never a better time for crime than Solace night. Even the watchmen would be half-drunk, just like most of the criminals. Rik had his gear on his person already. He hoped it would be enough. He told himself he had done this sort of thing a hundred times before, tonight was nothing different, but he did not quite believe it.

“I’ll walk over there with you,” said Leon. “You’ll need someone to watch your back.”

“It’s Solace night,” said Rik, stepping over the body of a drunk, masked and robed as a Dragon Priest. It might have been the real thing or it might have been a reveller, he did not know. “Surely you have better things to do.”

“There are still hill-men about,” said Leon seriously.

“Yes,” said Rik glancing around warily. “I suppose there are.”

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Sardec looked out through the window of the coach and into the revelling crowd. He took another puff of the opiated locoweed in the erotically carved pipe Marcus had handed to him. The lunar wine seemed to have broken through all his defences. He was out of the palace, out of sight of Asea and out of control and he was enjoying it. There was something exciting about tonight, he thought. The music, the fireworks, the lewd behaviour, the obvious joy of the crowd was a total contrast to the decorousness of Asea’s ball. Whatever else you thought about humans, they knew how to have fun. He almost envied them their primitive earthy behaviour.

When Paulus offered him another swig of the lunar wine, he took it. He even laughed at some of Jazeray’s observations on the revellers outside the window.

It was with a growing sense of anticipation that he climbed out of the coach on the edge of the Pit. It was a place of dark legend to the junior officers of the camp, but it was obvious from their knowledgeable air that these three had been here before, at least once. Jazeray summoned a linkboy with a snap of his fingers.

“Mama Horne’s” he said, and flipped the boy a silver coin.

“Yes, Excellency.”

Within heartbeats they were on their way into the dark, corrupt maze that he knew was the heart of the human part of every city. The stench was incredible as was the sense of bustling life. Everywhere was decorated with Solace lanterns. Costumed people emerged from the shadows like demons sprung to life. Part of him wondered what he was doing here. This was a place that could be dangerous for his kind, he knew. To these people he must be carrying a fortune.

But part of him revelled in the danger, in the idea of breaking out of the strictures of his life, in the sense that anything was possible. Here was a place where all the darkest of desires could be sated. Here was a place where, for a moment, he could escape from the constrictions of his ancient lineage and the role of ruler. He felt guilty that he could even admit such things to himself, but at the same time he acknowledged the truth. There seemed to be only one thing to do and that was have another swig from Marcus’s hip-flask when it was offered, and to see what was to come.

Certainly the people around them did not seem dangerous. This masquerade was the one time of the year when, by ancient tradition, the differences between the rulers and the ruled could be forgotten, and they seemed intent on taking advantage of it.

“Hello dearie,” called a girl in the mask of a cat. “Bet you are a handsome devil beneath that mask.” She reached out and stroked his face. Under normal circumstances, Sardec would have been repulsed, but with the alcohol in his belly, the drug in his lungs and the drumming music throbbing in his veins, he found it perversely erotic. The sense of shame he felt made it only more so. He had always told himself that wanting to sleep with a human woman was like wanting to sleep with a sheep.

Now, it seemed something long buried was emerging from the depths of his mind. Briefly he considered turning back, of running from this place before all the barriers came down, but he could not. There was no way he could find his way back, and the Pit was a dangerous place for a Terrarch to walk alone.

As if to confirm this, Paulus said; “Stick close and keep your hands on your weapons. This place is full of wolves.” Even as he said it a woman emerged from the crowd to kiss him full on the mouth and then be pulled back into the crowd by a male partner.

Anything could happen tonight, Sardec thought, anything at all.

Lighted glitter-boats plied the river. Inside and outside every tavern masked people drank and sang. Musicians played in the streets. People jigged to the sound of pipe and fiddle. Even here Rik saw that not all the drunks were as intoxicated as they pretended. There were still pickpockets and footpads about their business tonight, even if far fewer than normal. He was glad Leon was with him. Such scavengers were less likely to attack two seemingly sober men when there was plenty of easier prey about.

Ahead of him now he could see the go-down. It was as big and black as he remembered. The stink of the river filled his nostrils. The warehouse area was relatively quiet, so much so that the comparative silence seemed to ring in his ears, like the quiet on a battlefield once the fighting was over. Overhead, fireworks burst, exploding like flares. He felt now like he had often felt before going into combat. There was a tightness in his stomach and a dryness in his mouth. He held his hands up level and looked at them. They were steady.

“Now I know you are going to steal something,” said Leon. The pipe was back in his mouth now, rolling from side to side. “You always do that before you do the business.”

“It’s nice to know I am so predictable,” said Rik, eyeing the side of the warehouse. He had already decided he needed to make his entry through the roof. It was merely a matter of getting up there. There were several ledges on the river side, designed for lowering things into barges from. The rest of the building was like a fortress. The walls were thick, the doors heavy and multiply locked. Doubtless there would be watchmen inside and perhaps even attack dogs or ravager wyrms. They were sometimes let loose inside warehouses at night. He thought he had the means to deal with these. It was armed men he was worried about. Not for the first time he wondered about what he was doing. He knew it was crazy but that did not seem to affect his determination in the slightest. The lust to possess those books had taken over him completely.

“The night is not getting any younger,” he said. He opened the cloak and unwound the rope around his chest. Below his costume he was wearing a black tunic and britches. He took out some soot from a tobacco pouch and rubbed it on his face and hair.

“Now there’s a blast from the past. I never knew you still had it,” said Leon. Rik knew exactly what he meant. It was the same rope and grapnel they had used on many a night in Sorrow. The grapnel was wound round with the Old Witch’s finest spells of silence and stealth. The rope was spidersilk, light as a feather and twenty times stronger than normal hemp. “I think I will come with you.”

Rik shook his head. “No, this is personal. If you want to do something useful take my costume and mask. We might need it to cover our getaway. Keep watch here but make sure no one sees you. If you hear anything inside cause a distraction, it might help.”

There was no need to explain to Leon how to do that. He had done it many times before. “Fair enough. Be careful.”

“I’ll do my best.” Rik whirled the rope and then hurled it. The grapnel caught on the edge of the roof. He tugged it to make sure it would bear his weight. It held easily enough. He began to scamper up the side of the building. Soon the ground looked a long way below him. Leon seemed to have vanished. A moment later, he saw why. A bobbing lantern light announced the coming of a watchman.

Rik froze. The lantern came slowly closer. He could make out some cloaked figures now. One of them held the light, several more held clubs. Briefly he considered pulling up the line behind him, but decided the motion would probably draw exactly the attention he was trying to avoid. Instead he just hung where he was, praying that the grapnel would not work its way loose. His arms were sore and a little tired now. It had been a long time since he had done this, and it was using muscles that he had forgotten existed.

The watchmen were almost directly beneath him now. They paused. His heart pounded so loudly now he was surprised they did not hear it. Had they spotted his line? If so a swift tug by the whole group on it might bring him tumbling down. Or if they just looked up…

“This is the place,” said Jazeray. He had a look on his face that Sardec did not like, a self-satisfied smirk, the look of a glutton contemplating a feast. They passed within, into a place that reeked of cheap perfume and human bodies pressed too close together. As they entered, masked faces turned to look at them. Sardec noted two somehow familiar costumed figures had just entered and were glancing at him. One was massive and hulking, the other was tall and thin. Soldiers, he thought, soldiers from the camp, and felt another surge of shame that one of his men might have seen him here. How could he keep their respect?

A tall woman wearing a stage mask of Memosine, Patron Saint of Lovers, came forward to greet them. Her clothes were rich enough for a factor’s wife, but he knew that was not what she was. She performed an intricate and extraordinarily well-timed curtsy before them, graceful as a dancer, and said; “Welcome to my house, masters, what is your pleasure?”

“A private room and a deck of cards,” said Jazeray. “And your best wine, and girls.”

He said it as if one was no more important than the other. Perhaps to him they were not. He looked like a Terrarch well-used to depraved pleasures.

“At once,” said the woman, whom Sardec took to be Mama Horne. She led them swiftly up warped stairs lined with old prints. Overhead a massive chandelier illuminated the whole saloon. As the Exalted receded from view, conversation became louder, and music started to play again. Sardec realised that their appearance had quite an effect. In his state of inebriation that pleased him.

Sardec looked around the room. For a human brothel, he thought it was relatively luxuriously furnished, certainly more so than the chambers he had at the Inn. A massive mirror dominated one wall, and nicely carved, heavy furniture filled its centre. In each wall was a door. One led to the corridor, the others to bedchambers with mirrors on the ceiling, and huge double beds.

“It’s the best room in the place,” said the brothel-keeper.

Jazeray nodded to Mama Horne to indicate that it would do, and moments later the wine appeared, each dusty bottle being carried by a lively and very scantily dressed young woman.

“Tell Ari I am prepared to win back my money,” said Jazeray. Mama Horne nodded as if this were not unexpected. A shiver passed up Sardec’s spine. Surely, Jazeray was not prepared to gamble with humans. That was taking slumming a little too far.

He looked at the girls and wondered what exactly he was expected to do. Several of them noticed his glance and immediately moved towards him. He backed away slightly, doing his best to ignore the amused smirks of his companions. Why had he allowed himself to be talked into coming here, he wondered? Only one of the women did not seem interested, she seemed distracted, and she was by far the prettiest, at least to his eye. He walked over and took a seat beside her?

“What is your name?” he asked, a little harshly. His breathing was heavy.

“Rena,” she said.

Rik considered trying to hastily pull himself up onto the roof but decided that might just draw attention to him and if so he might easily be trapped up there while they summoned help.

Instead he just hung there and listened and watched. After a few heartbeats, he noticed that they had paused to swig from a wine bottle. Rik cursed again and hoped they were not going to take up residence below him. If they decided to sit there all night, drinking, he would have to do something desperate.

The watchmen put the cork back on the bottle, mumbled a curse and moved on. Rik continued his slow climb to the warehouse roof. This was the easy part, he reminded himself sourly. Perhaps he really ought to turn back. He knew he could not though. He wanted those books back, and he was prepared to do whatever it took.

Cautiously he pulled himself over the edge of the roof, and unhooked the grapnel. He paused and waited. He muttered the charm the Old Witch had taught him long ago. He sensed nothing. He glanced at the watchposts on the visible corners of the roof. Either the Elder Signs of Warding there were so old they were inert, or they had never been truly activated. At least he hoped that this was the case, and that a silent alarm was not being given even at this moment.

The roof itself was angled, and covered in slate tiles. They were slippery, and he knew he would have to be cautious. If one of them was loose, and in his experience there were almost at least some that were, it would be all too easy to send them tumbling into the alleyways below. If that happened at the wrong time, it could get the attention of the watchmen. He tried to tell himself it was unlikely, but he had known many men hung or burned when given away by equally unlikely events. And there were worse things that could happen. If the workmanship was bad, or the supports of the roof rotten, the whole thing might crumble beneath his weight and send him crashing to inevitable death on the floor of the warehouse.

He reeled up the rope and slowly and painfully began the process of crawling towards the skylight. He splayed himself almost flat to distribute his weight as evenly as he could and then moved spider-like towards the skylight and peered through it.

The outside was kept relatively clean by rain but there were a few recent smears of bird-shit that he wiped away with edge of his tunic sleeve. There was nothing he could do about the grime on the inside. It obscured a good deal of his view but still he made out what he needed to. There were lights on inside the warehouse. He cursed but decided to push on. He had come too far now to turn back.

He produced his knife and inserted it under the edge of the window frame. Carefully, cautiously and as quietly as he could, he sawed away at the edges. He was glad of the noise of the fireworks, the crowd and the music now. It would cover what he was doing. He just hoped there was no one directly below him to wonder at the dust-fall inevitably created by his actions.

Eventually he got the frame loose from its setting and slowly removed it. The hole was just big enough for him to work his way through. Someone broader of shoulder or larger of gut could not have made it.

He worked his way back down the roof and hooked the grapnel into position around one of the gargoyles, wrapping part of the rope around it to make sure it would hold, then tested it to ensure it could take the strain. He moved back to the skylight. He fed the rope down into the gap till it landed atop one of the high piles of bales he had seen on his visit. So far so good, he thought. This would, he hoped, bring him in at a height where no one would notice. He worked his way into the hole now. Hoping that he had gauged things right and he would not get stuck, praying that nobody below would notice him and shoot a bullet up his backside, he held the rope and was all too aware of the void below his feet.

He told himself that it was all right, the bales would break his fall if anything went wrong but he knew there was a drop nearly ten times the height of a man below him if he had miscalculated.

He took a deep breath and began to lower himself into the shadows.

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Rik clambered down the rope till he hit the bales. They were soft and gave beneath his weight, swaying slightly underfoot. If he made a wrong move he would send them all tumbling down. The dust in the air tickled his nostrils and he fought down a near uncontrollable urge to sneeze. He wound the rope around a bale and then tied it. He did not want to lose the grapnel now. Even up here he felt exposed.

Near the trade door a lantern burned. There was a glow too from the counting house and another from a distant corner. He wondered what was going on over there. Maybe it was a place for the watchmen to take their meals. There was no way of knowing.

He checked for ways to the ground. They were not easy to find. The island of bales he had landed atop was high and flat. His best way down would be to leap from it to the next island which consisted of sacks terraced to just about a man’s height above the ground.

He caught the scurry of rats, and the distant murmur of men’s voices. There was something different and strange about them but he could not put his finger on exactly what.

If he stayed here much longer there was the possibility of his freezing up entirely or losing his nerve and clambering back up the rope. He checked all his weapons were in place and then forced his limbs to move.

The jump from the island of bales to the island of sacking was not far, a mere six feet or so, but the height made it daunting as did the less than firm footing. As he stood upright the bales moved, making him sway slightly.

He tried not to think about the forty-foot drop to hard ground beneath him. He sprang out over the ledge. The force of his leap unbalanced the bale and sent it tumbling downwards. His own nervous momentum sent him sprawling atop the sacks. These too slithered around under his weight.

A cloud of dust rose, tickling his nostrils and the back of his throat, threatening to make him sneeze. He lay atop them, heart pounding, listening to see if anyone had noticed. There were no shouts, no warning cries. The sound of fireworks and music had covered his mistake, or so he hoped. He checked to make sure the line was still in place and was grateful to see that it was.

Now he scampered down the sacks, trying to be quiet, but the grain-filled bags crackled beneath his boots. The noise was just loud enough to set his nerves on edge. When he reached the bottom of the terracing, he halted again and listened, like a deer that hears the howling of wolves.

Once more he appeared to have gone unnoticed. He wondered how much longer his luck could hold then gently lowered himself to the ground.

He heard footsteps coming closer and cursed. Had he been spotted? Was this someone creeping forward to ambush him? If they were trying to be stealthy, they were doing an appallingly bad job. Unless, of course, the walker was meant to distract him while others crept up behind him. Rik fumbled for his knife while he glanced over his shoulder. No one was there.

“Get a move on, Tresh! We’re waiting to win our money back!” The shout came from the far corner of the go-down. Rik realised now what had disturbed him earlier. The accent was that of a hill-man.

“I’ll be right back,” said another voice, obviously drunken, equally obviously belonging to a hill-man. There was the sound of a man making water and a sigh of relief and then the footsteps receded again.

What in the name of the Shadow was going on? Why were there hill-men in the warehouse? For a moment the mad thought raced across Rik’s mind that they were robbing the place too, but he dismissed it after a moment’s consideration. Robbers did not pause to play cards in the commission of their raids. These men sounded quite at home here. There was obviously some connection between the hill-men and the factor.

His plan, such as it was, had already gone awry. He had hoped that Bertragh and his bodyguards would leave and after that the place would be empty save for a watchman or two, and he would get a chance to overpower or elude them and check out the counting house.

He had been far too optimistic. It sounded like these men were planning on staying here for a while. Perhaps the best thing to do was simply to give the whole damn thing up and head back the way he came. If caught, the best he could hope for would be to be handed over to the City Watch and hanged as a thief. He froze and considered what to do next.

He had come this far. He might as well go just a little further. He would check out the counting house. It was just possible the lantern had been left on by accident, and there was no one in the place. If that were so, it would be a Light-blessed opportunity to be about his business.

He stalked forward, heading from aisle to aisle. He paused as another man walked past to relieve himself or perhaps simply to check out some noise. Rik held his breath. The man wore the colours of the Agante. This was getting worse and worse. He remembered what had happened to Vosh only too well.

Slowly, painfully, he crept closer to the door of the counting house. The light was on, but he heard no sound from within. He moved forward towards the door and froze when a voice broke the silence.

“It is what we were seeking. These are Alzibar’s books.” Rik paused. His every instinct screamed for him to leap back into one of the aisles and get out of there. The voice made his flesh crawl. It had a cold inhuman quality to it that yet held a note of evil triumph.

“Good. The Masters of the High Lodge will be pleased, Zarahel.” This voice belonged to Bertragh. Rik paused. It sounded like Bertragh or his companion had deciphered the manuscript fairly quickly. If he waited just a little longer he might get some clue as to exactly what it contained. And what was that about masters?

Another realisation hit him like a hammer-blow. Zarahel was the name of the hill-man prophet the Foragers had been sent to find. What was he doing here? Recovering his books, by the sound of it.

“Let us hope so. We must still get back to the mine and awaken the god. Then let the interlopers tremble.”

“Alzibar claimed no one but an Exalted could work this ritual.”

Zarahel laughed softly. “He would say that. Even if he was a Brother, he was a Terrarch. Men worked such sorcery long before they stole our world. I will need adjuncts but I can perform the ritual. Have no fear.”

“But can you control the god once he is awake?”

“If these books contain the truth, yes.”

“You are gambling your life on that ‘if’.”

“If I am successful we shall be able to sweep the damned demon-loving Terrarchs from these lands. Then Uran Ultar will reward us for keeping the faith.”

“That is not the Brotherhood’s plan,” said Bertragh. There was a sharpness to his voice that he perhaps did not mean to be there. Whatever the one called Zarahel was proposing was at odds with what he expected. “I think that you over-reach yourself.”

“Perhaps, my friend. Perhaps. But think…you are a man as well as a Brother. Do you not dream of being free, of casting off the Terrarch yoke. This is our chance.”

What were they talking about, Rik wondered- did they really think the Old God would reward them? Did these madmen seriously believe they could reawaken Uran Ultar?

He understood now why the sorcerer had been in the mine. It was some sort of entrance to the hell in which the Ultari dwelled. The mage had been trying to make contact with the ancient demon race.

No! He had made contact. He had succeeded in awakening at least one, and it sounded like there were far more where that one had come from. Given how terrible a foe that creature had been, an army would be far, far worse. He realised that in his shock he had stopped paying attention to what Zarahel and the factor were saying. He concentrated once more.

“The stars are almost right for the ritual. If we can get there in time, I can awaken Him — never you mind…”

“You should go at once. Keep in mind the great plan. It is best if we strike once the Terrarchs march into Kharadrea and…”

There were sounds of movement inside the counting house. From the corner of his eye, Rik caught sight of something else. A hill-man stood there watching him. He looked drunk and a little confused. He opened his mouth to shout.

Rik tossed the dagger he held in his hand. It buried itself in the hill-man’s throat. Even as the man fell, Rik sprang forward and caught him. He clamped a hand over the man’s mouth, ripped the dagger free and stabbed again and again. Warm blood covered him. Behind him he heard the door of the counting house begin to open.

Desperately he pulled the hill-man into the aisle and then realised it was pointless. If the conspirators came this way they would see the blood. He was alone in the warehouse, surrounded by an unknown number of foes, and a pair of fiends steeped in the darkest sorcery. It was time to get out.

He let go of the dying man, smacked him on the back of the head with the knife hilt as he fell, and then raced as fast as he could down the aisle, taking a sharp right to get out of direct line of sight as soon as he could. Behind him he could hear Zarahel’s voice, shouting; “Craymorne, are you drunk. The bastard’s drunk and passed out there. Get up! We’ve got to get going.”

There was a moment of quiet and Rik knew that the realisation that Craymorne was not drunk was sinking into Zarahel’s mind. He looked up, oriented himself on the skylight and headed towards it, throwing stealth to the winds, knowing it was useless now, and his only defence was speed.

“Intruders!” he heard Zarahel bellow. “Arm yourselves and search this place. We’ve got a killer on the loose in here.”

From the distance came confused shouts and the sound of running men. He raced through the gloom. Was this the aisle he wanted? Was this the one? Shadowy figures raced along the edge of the warehouse. He froze for a moment to let them pass and then rushed towards the island of sacks he had used earlier.

A glance upward showed the skylight above him. He reached up and pulled himself onto the pile of sacks, bounding up them as quickly as possible, trusting to the towering islands of stuff all around him to keep him out of line of sight for as long as possible. Below him lanterns moved and hill-men shouted to each other.

He scrambled to the top terrace of sacking and looked across. The bale from which he had leapt earlier had fallen leaving him a greater distance to leap to get to the next one. Under the circumstances, he did not have much choice. He sprang. For a moment, he felt the long drop below him, and then his feet landed on the bale. It tottered and began to shift under his weight, causing him to fall forward. He was right on the corner, and his own momentum was going to carry him to his doom. Ahead of him he could see the dangling rope.

He had only one chance and he took it, springing directly forward into thin air. He reached out to grasp the rope. He had a sickening view of the floor and the lanterns a long way below him.

For a heartbeat, he was certain that the fall would kill him. He clutched the rope and began to slip. Friction burned his fingers. He was certain he was going to run out of rope. There was a sudden sickening jar as his grip stopped his descent.

The rope swung sideways, pendulum fashion but he did not fall. He held on grimly, waiting for the momentum to die so he could climb upwards to the relative safety of the roof. All it would take would be for one of those men down there to look up and see his silhouette against the skylight. It seemed all but impossible that one of them had not done so already. It surely was only a matter of moments.

The swinging stopped. Barely able to maintain a grip with his blistered fingers he pulled himself up hand over hand. It seemed to take forever. He heaved himself up through the skylight wriggling desperately, certain that he would get stuck.

A moment later he was up and out on the slates, sliding forward, face first towards the edge of the roof. He pushed forward and down with his rope-burned hands, hoping to slow himself. Slates were driven up and away in front of him like a wave, tumbling towards the ground. The pain in his hands was excruciating but he managed to stop himself by hooking his toes over the edge of the skylight. After a few seconds of frantic scrambling for grip he oriented himself and hauled up the line. He quickly hooked the grapnel over the edge of the skylight and then began to lower himself to the ground below.

He hit the ground after what seemed hours of painful climbing. His hands burned. A figure stepped from the gloom, and Rik reached for his pistol.

“It’s me,” said Leon. “What the hell is going on? You look like you’ve been working in an abattoir.”

“Had some trouble inside. Give me my costume and try and get that bloody rope.”

Leon handed him his mask and robe and Rik swiftly donned it. As he did so Leon worked the grapnel free. What a fiasco, Rik thought.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get the hell away from here before someone comes looking for us.”

They ran as fast as they could in their heavy robes and masks back towards the music and dancing of the Solace masquerade. Suddenly, in his mind’s eye, Rik saw the face of the man he had stabbed and the look the man had given him as the life went out of him. He felt a little sick, as he sometimes did after killing at close quarters, but he pushed the thought away. There would be time enough to dwell on things after they had made their escape.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Zarahel raced around the warehouse. Who had the intruder been, he wondered, and where had he gone? All the doors were secured. No one had come or gone that way, of that he was absolutely certain.

Was it possible that Craymorne had been killed by one of his own people? Perhaps some old score was being paid off. The hill-men were touchy enough and given to feuding. No one knew that better than he. Or had some other faction managed to infiltrate his force? Were Bertragh’s men to be trusted? Was the factor himself?

He paused and scratched one of his blisters. They were getting bigger. He glanced at his bodyguards assembled in the loading area of the warehouse. They were angry and they were scared. They held their weapons ready. Like all true hill-tribe warriors, they were killers born and bred but none of them showed any signs of being the murderer. There was no blood on anybody’s clothing that he could see.

Craymorne had bled profusely and some of it would have gotten on to his killer. Zarahel’s well trained eye picked up no sign of that. That meant the killer was still at large. He ordered the men to split into groups and search the place again. Another thought occurred to him, looking at the location where the body had been found. It was very close to the counting house door.

Had the killer been listening there, and had Craymorne found him? The thought that someone might know about his plans rocked Zarahel. More than that, the speed and silence of the killing argued for the work of a professional. Perhaps the assassin was a member of the Scarlet Lotus society or another of the Realm’s secret police.

Perhaps this was the work of the Brotherhood of the Wyvern who always opposed the Basilisk when they could. If word reached the wrong ears, there would be big trouble indeed. Perhaps he could work a divination to find out what had gone on here, but that would take time, and if the killer was a professional he would be warded. Anyway, he had got everything he had come here for. The books were his.

He came to a quick decision. The situation here was untenable. He turned to Bertragh.

“Get everything you need to travel. We are leaving here. Now!”

The merchant did not look at all surprised. He merely nodded his head. He had obviously come to the same conclusion. Zarahel’s respect for him increased. Bertragh was not young. He lived a very comfortable life here, yet he was prepared to give it up at a moment’s notice in the service of the Brotherhood. It was what he had sworn to do, of course, but nonetheless Zarahel was impressed. He had known much younger, fitter men who would not have been quite so quick to accept the new realities of the situation. Of course, Bertragh also realised what would happen to him if they were betrayed to the authorities.

It meant abandoning those men who had gone into the city in search of revenge but it served the fools right. Word could be got to them later. Marla would see to that. If they were caught and put to the question, there was nothing they could tell the Inquisition. They were not privy to the Brotherhood’s true plans, let alone his own. It was time to cut his losses and leave.

Having made the decision, Zarahel was immediately prepared to live with it and the consequences. Still, he would have given a lot of gold to know who the intruder was, and still more to be in a position to cut the man’s tongue out or introduce him to his pet.

Rik entered Mama Horne’s and looked around for Rena. She was nowhere to be seen. He felt a flicker of disappointment. Still, it was probably for the best. He had disposed of his blood-soaked tunic on the way here, and washed his face and hands in a rain-barrel, but he wanted time to look in a mirror and check he had left no more tell-tale marks of his night’s activities. And he wanted to get his hands cleaned and bandaged too.

Even as the thought crossed his mind, he saw Weasel and the Barbarian coming across the room towards him.

“Where have you been?” asked Weasel. “We were starting to wonder if some hill-man was cutting your private parts off with his knife.”

“Personal business,” said Rik. He reinforced the warnings to silence he had given Leon on the way back, with a look. Weasel noticed it and shrugged.

“You’ll never guess who came in,” said the Barbarian.

“I’m not even going to try. Why not tell me?”

“Only half our bloody junior officers, is all,” said Weasel.

“Exalted? Here?”

“Aye. They’re slumming on Solace night.”

“Can’t say as I blame them,” said the Barbarian.

“Who is it?”

“Sardec. Jazeray. Marcus. Paulus. Wankers, the lot of them.”

“It would be a shame if anything happened to them,” said Rik.

“Now don’t even think that,” said Weasel. “There’s things that have been done here tonight that would not bear the slightest investigation by the powers that be.”

You don’t know the half of that, thought Rik. He wondered whether he should tell his comrades about what he had overheard. He was not at all sure. There was really not a lot they could do about it. They could not run and tell the authorities without giving away what they had been up to. The most sensible course of action was simply to shut up and stay shut up.

Part of his mind gibbered about the possibility of Uran Ultar being raised. He tried to tell himself that there was no chance of that. Zarahel was a human, not a Terrarch. There was no way he could perform the necessary sorcery even if he did possess the books.

But the man himself had thought differently shrieked the fear-filled part of his mind. Rik shook his head. He did not want to be here if the demon god was unleashed. He did not want to visit the dungeons of the Inquisition either. Why could he not have left well enough alone, he wondered? Why had he bothered to preserve those damned books in the first place?

“Cheer up, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. “It’s Solace night and you’ve money in your pocket. It can’t be all bad.”

“For once you’re right.” Best leave tomorrow’s worries for tomorrow, Rik thought. “Have you seen Rena?”

Sardec rose from the bed. He felt replete and he felt soiled. Some of the effects of the alcohol and the drugs had had worn off, enough for him to realise what he had done. He looked down on the naked girl all too aware of what she was.

How had it come to this, he wondered?

Looking at her, he knew. She was not like his other lovers. Her breasts were larger, her hips wider than a Terrarch woman’s. And yet she was beautiful, and there was something about her that moved him to lust in a way that they had not. It was the fascination of the forbidden, he thought. His shame was an integral component of his lust, not its mirror image.

He began to put his costume back on, aware too that it was to blame for this as well. It had provided him with a disguise. It had taken him out of himself. It had, for this one night, given him a new identity. He had become someone else, but now it was time to return to reality, to put this sordid event behind him, and make sure that it never happened again.

He looked at the girl. She looked at him, empty eyed, and he wondered what she was seeing. Did she despise him? Did it matter? Who was she to judge him? There were other matters to be thought of, things he had never dealt with before. What was he supposed to do about payment? How much? Was that why she was staring at him- did she expect coin?

He opened his purse decisively and flipped a silver coin to her. He caught the flicker of disgust and perhaps shame on her face. She made no attempt to catch it.

“That will be sufficient!” he said, hoping it was and hoping it sounded decisive. He did not want to show weakness in front of this human woman.

She nodded to him. Part of him felt appalled at the way he had behaved. It was not the way he had been brought up. Suddenly, he did want to face the others gambling in the room. He wanted out. He put on his mask and opened the door.

As he did so, someone walked past. He was tall. Even masked and costumed he moved like a Terrarch. He turned and looked through the door, and his eyes appeared to widen in surprise. Sardec nodded amiably to him and passed on down the corridor, leaving the figure looking at the door that had swung shut behind him.

Rik glared at the door and was tempted to open it. A strange cold rage filled him. He had recognised Rena on the bed, just as he had recognised Sardec in his costume. The stab of jealousy caught him completely by surprise. The memory of Sabena and her lover came flooding back. He felt an urge to kick open the door and go in and berate the girl. He felt the urge to follow Sardec and punch him to the ground despite the pain in his hands.

Instead he did nothing. He merely stood there. Numb. He had been stupid to have expected anything different from a girl in her profession. He was an idiot in fact. This had been a predictable thing. The girl was, after all, a whore.

Whore. Whore. Whore, he thought, repeating the word as if it would give him some comfort, feeding his anger so that it would burn away his pain. This, he thought, was one of the worse nights of his life. He had failed in his effort to get the books, learned secrets he did not want to know, and now had seen Rena in bed with the Exalted he most despised.

He cursed. He did not know why he had expected anything different. This, after all, was the way the world was. The Terrarchs got what they wanted at whatever the cost. Humanity could go to hell.

He cursed the damned books and his obsession with them. Maybe if he had stayed behind with Rena this would never have happened.

Who was he kidding? Sardec was a Terrarch noble. She would have walked out with him even if Rik had been standing right beside her.

He stalked off down the corridor, filled with an overwhelming sense of defeat and failure. Let Zarahel raise his bloody demon, he thought. Let him smash the whole world to flinders. Why should he care?

He was going to get drunk.

Chapter Thirty

Sardec woke the next morning with the worst hangover of his entire life. He stared at the window and realised he was back in his own room at the camp. He could not remember how he had gotten there. He was conscious of a deep feeling of shame, although he was not entirely sure of what he had to be ashamed about.

Slowly, memory of the events of the night before came back to him, and he recalled the girl, and all the rest of what had happened afterwards. There had been a great deal of drinking, and the press of rough costumed bodies around him. He realised now he had been very lucky indeed to get back to the inn unscathed.

He felt as if his whole life had changed. He thought of sweaty bodies, of lust, his own and the girl’s. The memories still carried an erotic charge that aroused him and made him feel even more ashamed. He rose from the bed, aware that the banging he heard was not entirely caused by his throbbing head. Someone was pounding on the door.

“Wait a moment,” he said in his most commanding voice. He studied himself in the mirror. His costume was crumpled, his features pale, but there was no sign of the shame he expected to be visible there. He had half expected the mark of it to be branded on his brow but he looked completely normal.

“Come on, Sardec, open up” The voice belonged to Paulus, and the tone Sardec thought was unduly familiar. Of course, he realised Paulus was going to be that way from now on. He had knowledge of Sardec’s weakness and it bound them now.

Sardec threw open the door. Paulus, dressed in his costume britches and a shirt, his weapons were strapped on, stood there.

“What’s the hurry?” Sardec asked as languidly as he could.

“You’ve slept well,” said Paulus.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s long past midday. Your little romp last night must really have taken it out of you. Still, these human girls are insatiable, aren’t they? We were surprised when we found you had gone off on your own. We didn’t think you would have had the strength.”

Sardec just looked at him, knowing he was going to have to get used to this jocularity but not liking it one little bit. Another thought hit him; it was past mid-day. He had duties, there were men to supervise, it was time to get back.

“The Colonel wants to speak to you,” said Paulus, almost as an afterthought.

“What about?”

“He didn’t say, but I think something has come up. There’s a messenger down below from the Redoubt.”

“Maybe I should get into uniform first.”

“I would hurry if I was you. He said it was urgent.”

Sardec took a seat in front of the Colonel’s desk. This time it was just the two of them, no clerks, no servants. The paperwork was neatly stacked away.

“I have just received a message from the Lady Asea,” said Xeno. “You and your men are to be prepared to leave from her palace tomorrow at dawn. You are going back to the mountains.”

“Very good, sir.”

“You may take as many wyrms as necessary and you should be prepared to investigate the mine. Requisition what you need. I will approve it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“And Lieutenant Sardec…”

“Yes, sir.”

“Be very wary of the Lady Asea.”


“She is a very deep Scarlet, Lieutenant.”

“I never knew that was a crime, sir.”

“Let us just say it is less fashionable now than it once was. The Queen is no longer an impressionable young woman. The complexion of the court is changing. The Greens have more influence these days.”

Sardec could see where this was going. “That is hardly a matter of life or death, sir.”

“Don’t be so naive, Lieutenant. We both know influence is the currency of our class. Humans commit crimes for money. Terrarchs commit crimes for power.”

“I am aware of the saying, sir. I do not see the connection with Lady Asea.”

“There is something going on here, Lieutenant. I am not sure what, but I would be willing to bet that whatever it is, it is connected with some Scarlet scheme to worm their way back into the Queen’s favour.”

“I am not sure I follow you, sir.”

“You want me to be more specific.”

“That might prove felicitous, sir.”

“She seems very keen to poke her nose into this business at Achenar.”


“I would like to know why.”

“Would it be naive of me to suggest that you ask her, sir?”

“And she would tell me, of course.”

“You think she may be up to something sinister, sir.”

“I would not like to take that chance. Keep a very close eye on her, Lieutenant.”

“And should her motives prove to be…sinister, sir?”

“Just keep a close watch on her. If she finds anything that might be valuable, report it.”

Sardec could not but feel that he was being asked to do something dishonourable, spying on a Lady of the First.

“And don’t let anything happen to her, Lieutenant. Scarlet or not, none of us would look very good if something were to befall a Lady of her eminence.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir.”

“Very good, Lieutenant. You look quite tired. I think you’d best get some sleep tonight. You have an early start tomorrow if you are going to be at the Lady’s mansion by dawn. It would not do to be late for such an appointment.”

Xeno gave Sardec a smirk that let the Lieutenant know that he knew exactly what Sardec had been up to last night.

“This cannot be true,” said the Barbarian.

“Unfortunately, it is,” said Sergeant Hef, glancing around the inside of Mama Horne’s with some distaste. From his prim appearance, you would have thought he had never been inside such a place before. Rik shoved the new girl, Eva, from his knee, and was pleased by the look of daggers Rena shot him across the room. He was showing her, he thought.

“We’re to assemble back at the camp right away,” said Leon. “But we have a written authorisation from the Quartermaster valid for…”

“Take it up with the Colonel,” said Hef. “I am sure he will be delighted to explain his decision to you.”

“Anybody know what this is about? Have the hill-men gone on the rampage? Are we being invaded by the Dark Empire?” Weasel was obviously keen to know, despite his sardonic tone. Through his hangover haze so was Rik. He was keen for anything that would help him block out the memories of the previous evening. His bandaged hands stung. He would need to see a healer when he got back to camp.

“I don’t know,” said the Sergeant. “Rumour has it that hill-men are going nuts and we’re being sent out to stop it.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said the Barbarian.

“And when you can spot that, it really must be true,” said the Sergeant. “Right lads — kiss the girls goodbye. It’s time to get back to business.”

Rik groaned as he picked himself up from the couch. He slipped some coins into Eva’s hand, looked around to see if Rena had noticed, but she was already gone. Although he was not quite sure why, he felt bad about the whole business. Slowly, as his thoughts came back into focus, he realised that he had other problems. If what he had heard in the warehouse last night was true, they all had. The question was, what was he going to do about it?

As they walked through the streets of the Pit, things had an oddly deserted look. Small solace prayer flags still fluttered in the wind. Families still slept in doorways, beggars still coughed and extended their hands for money, but the streets seemed empty after the revels of last night. Occasionally he caught the whiff of gunpowder from the fireworks. As they moved on, he saw Corporal Toby and a few of the other Foragers moving to join them. It looked like they had all been rousted out of whatever nests they had found for themselves.

Rik looked over at Weasel and the Barbarian. The Barbarian looked quite sick, as if he had drunk too much for even his iron constitution. His pupils were shrunk to pinpricks in his pale purple eyes. He chewed the edges of his moustache reflectively. As Rik watched he bent over and slipped something that glinted like gold into the hand of a ragged woman sleeping in a doorway. She had two children as ragged as she under her arms. Weasel was red-eyed and miserable looking. He had probably lost a lot of money gambling last night. Rik slowly edged over towards them. Abruptly, he came to a decision.

“We are in big trouble,” he said quietly through the side of his mouth.

“It’s not that bad,” said Weasel. “They probably only want us to go on patrol again.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“What did you mean exactly?”

“I found out what was in those books.” Weasel did a double take.

“How did you do that?”

“Never mind.”

Weasel laughed out loud. “You went and stole them back, didn’t you?”

“How did you work that out?”

“Anybody could see those books made you itchy as a booze-hound looking at a bottle.”

The Barbarian joined in the laughter. “You went and stole them back? Halfbreed, you genius! Now we can sell them all over again.”

Rik saw no sense in denying the charges against him. “I tried to get them back. I didn’t succeed. I did hear Bertragh discussing what they were for with Zarahel though.”

“You saw the two of them together, the factor and the Prophet?” Weasel sounded astonished.

“Not exactly but I heard them. They were in Bertragh’s office in the warehouse and I was outside the door.”

“By the Light, how did you get in?” asked the Barbarian. “That place was better guarded than the Amber Palace.”

“Trade secret. The thing is I did. Are either of you interested in knowing what I found out? It might only save your lives.”

“No need to get peevish, lad,” said the Barbarian.

“Just because your girl went off with his high and mightiness,” added Weasel. Rik winced. He had vague memories of whining drunkenly and at great length to Weasel about the whole business last night.

“You want to hear or not?”

“If you think it’s important.”

Rik looked around once more, just to make sure. They were almost at the walls now, and there was no one within view, looked like everybody was inside sleeping off their hangovers. You could never be too careful though.

“They are going to summon more of those demons we fought.” He heard both Weasel and the Barbarian gasp.

“Why the fuck would they do that?” the Barbarian asked.

“I don’t know. Maybe the demon can grant them wishes just like in a fairy story but frankly it sounded more like they were planning on getting an army of those things.”

“One of them was bad enough,” said the Barbarian.

“An army of hill-men spearheaded by a company of demons,” said Weasel. “I could see how that would appeal to Zarahel. He hates the Terrarchs like poison. Of course, I don’t see what this has to do with us.”

“You don’t?”

“For one thing, they might want to summon those demons, but who says they can? Only Terrarchs are capable of that sort of magic.”

“Zarahel didn’t think so.”

“Doesn’t make him right, Halfbreed.”

“I sincerely hope for all our sakes that you are right.”

“What could we do if I am wrong? Go chasing after him and get the books back?”


“For one thing, I would not give a monkey’s shit for our chances of getting out of the hills alive, just the three of us. For another, if Zarahel can do magic, do you really want to face him? And for another, our beloved regimental commander might object to us legging it over the horizon in search of magicians when there is a war just about to happen…”

“That will be the least of our worries if Zarahel and his buddies come out of those mountains with a bunch of those spider demons.”

“You’re not suggesting that we run away?” Weasel’s tone made it clear that he thought this was the first half-sensible thing Rik had said all day.

“It beats being dead.”

“Halfbreed, use your brain. If we’re stuck in the middle of a hill-man uprising and a plague of demons, the safest place for us is with the army.”

Rik thought about that. Weasel was probably right. He had been in enough war-torn regions to know that the best place to be under such circumstances was where there were plenty of armed men willing to give you their support.

“And it might all be just talk,” said the Barbarian. His tone made it clear that he was just whistling in the dark. Like Rik he was prepared for the worst.

Rik went back to his hangover. He did not know what bothered him most; the business with Zarahel or the business with Rena. Both made him feel sick.

Back at the camp, Sardec was waiting for them. “Get powder and field rations from the magazine,” he told them. “We’re heading back into the mountains tomorrow.”

“May I be permitted to ask why, sir?” asked Sergeant Hef. He knew it was a question that was on everybody’s mind.

“We are providing an escort for a Terrarch lady.”

“That’s all I bloody well need,” muttered the Barbarian. “A flower picking expedition.”

“Get to bed early tonight, men,” said Sardec. “We’re off before dawn.”

Rik stared at him and thought of Rena, willing the Terrarch officer to die. If sheer willpower could have managed it, Sardec would have been a corpse, but he stubbornly refused to fall down.

“Word is we are heading back to the mine,” Weasel said, strolling up and squatting down by the fire. A group of Foragers studied the sorcerous lights burning in the night sky over the town. Some big magic was being brewed down there, Rik thought.

“How do you know?” Rik asked, taking another pull on the wine flask.

“Just been talking to the Quartermaster. Seems the mahouts have been given orders to prepare the bridgebacks for a trip into the mountains. And Lieutenant Sardec just put in a requisition for two dozen storm-lanterns to be sent with the wyrms. Doesn’t that sound like they are planning on heading somewhere dark?”

“The mine?”

“Of course.”

“Other sources say Lady Asea wants to see our discovery for herself.”

“Other sources? You mean Lieutenant Jazeray?”

“Go ask the Quartermaster. I’m sure he’ll tell you.”

Rik knew what Weasel was thinking. He was putting together what Rik had heard in the warehouse with this sudden expedition. Had the Exalted got word of Zarahel’s plans? It was possible; they had their own sources. Perhaps it was what all that magic being brewed down in the city was about. He shivered, not wanting to think about what might be waiting at the mine.

He got up and made off into the darkness.

“Where are you going, Rik? I was only joking about the Quartermaster.”

“Off to make some preparations of my own,” he said.

Weasel followed him for a short while into the gloom. “I heard another rumour today.”


“Seems Bertragh’s warehouse was burgled the other night. A dead hill-man was found there. The factor himself has disappeared.”

“I think we can both guess where.” Weasel nodded and headed back to the fire, a set of dice had appeared in his hand.

Rik lurched off in the direction of Karl’s billet. The Wyrm Hunter might sell him some of his special weapons if he asked nicely. He had never been known to do so in the past, but no one had ever offered him gold regals before either. Rik had a particular desire to get some truesilver bullets. They were the only thing he had ever heard of that were universally effective against demons. He hoped Karl would be willing to part with some.

Chapter Thirty-One

The next morning when the Lady Asea strode through the gateway of her mansion to inspect the troops drawn up in the courtyard, Sardec was surprised. She did not look like a spoiled noblewoman any more. Flanked by two black robed servants, she looked like a Terrarch warlord from the Elder Times. In spite of himself, he was impressed. There was no doubt that here indeed was one of the First, and one accoutred for battle.

On her face Asea wore a mask of liquid metal. It covered everything save her eyes and her teeth. There were two holes for her nostrils. It was moulded to her features and moved with them, smiling when she smiled, frowning when she frowned. In the middle of the mask’s forehead rested a black jewel, miniature elder signs inscribed on every facet.

Her body was wrapped in strips of what looked like studded leather, like the cerements of a mummy. Like the mask, they clung to her flesh sorcerously and followed her every movement. There was no doubt she was armoured, but it was armour that allowed her as much flexibility as if she were clad in silk.

On her right wrist were three golden bands, each marked by runes, and each bearing a glowing gem: one red, one purple, one green. Sardec thought he recognised two of them. The green was the master control ring for a Leash, used to bind wyrms and other creatures to the wearer’s will. The red bore a strong resemblance to something his father had shown him as a boy. It was a control torque for one of the ancient weapons. A rune of Warding pulsed on it. He could not begin to guess what the third armlet was for. On her belt hung the holster of a Lash and the scabbard of a blade. A host of Elder signs dangled from a truesilver chain around her neck.

She might have stepped out of one of the sagas of Elder Days. All her equipment had the smooth, potent look of the Old Magic. Behind the two black clad servants came a house servant bearing a large rune-covered flask.

“At least you are punctual,” she said. “So few youths are these days. Come! I would have some words with your troops.”

“As you wish,” said Sardec. Unconsciously he fell into step behind her. He lengthened his stride so that they walked together like equals. The two servants, their faces masked and veiled so that only a thin strip of dark skin was visible around the eyes, fell in behind them. The Foragers were drawn up in ranks a short distance from the great wyrms that would carry them. They stood smartly to attention as Asea appeared, much more smartly than they normally would have for him, he thought sourly. It seemed that they too were impressed.

Asea passed along the line pausing to look into the faces of men here and there, searching their faces as if looking for something. Most men paled under that cold scrutiny, but a few met her eye, and he sensed that in some indefinable way she was pleased. When she had passed along the entire line, she turned and took up a position a few strides in front of the troops.

“We are going into the mountains,” she said. Her voice carried well, although by some sorcerer’s trick she did not seem to have raised it above the conversational level. “We are going back to a place you have visited previously. You are to be my bodyguards. I can see that I will be in safe hands!

“When I return to my home unharmed you will be well rewarded. There will be gold crown for each of you…perhaps more if things should prove a little dangerous.”

There was cheering at this. She turned away and spoke soft urgent words to the servants carrying the flask.

“Be very careful with that,” she said. “Should the seal break we face death. Aye, and worse than death.”

What was going on here? Sardec wondered, as he gave the orders to mount.

“Here we go again,” said the Barbarian, as they scrambled over the side of the howdah. Rik wondered if it was the same wyrm as they had ridden on previously. There was something about the blotched pattern of its neck scales that seemed familiar.

The wyrm lurched upright and let out a bellow of suppressed fear and rage. From the gate of Asea’s tower came the sound of hissing and a peculiar reptilian squealing. “What now?” the Barbarian muttered as they all stood up to look over the howdah’s side.

Through the gate emerged a pack of about a dozen huge ripjacks. They raced forward swirling around Sardec, lean bi-pedal wyrms with long snake-like necks and lashing tails. From tip of nose, to end of tail they were probably nine feet long, and stood four foot high. Massive slashing claws emerged from their toes. Their teeth were razor sharp and wicked intelligence shone in their eyes.

It was the sight and most likely the smell of these predators that had upset the great bridgebacks. They swivelled to keep them in view despite the best efforts of their mahouts. Rik felt something almost like admiration for Sardec. He knew that it would have been impossible for him to stand there as calm as the Lieutenant did with those killers milling around him. At the same time, it would have given him the greatest satisfaction to see them tear Sardec limb from limb and feast on his remains.

Looking closer, Rik could see that each had a small collar with a gleaming stone upon its neck. Sorcery controlled the ripjacks. Noticing the massive jet black wyrm emerging through an inner gate of the Palace, Rik knew who was doing the controlling. It looked like Lady Asea was serious about her hunting.

He took a long breath and settled down, clutching his weapons for reassurance. He had not liked the way the Lady Asea had looked at him at all. It had made him feel as if she was looking right down into the blackest depths of his soul and seeing things there that amused her. He hoped it was not the case, for if she could, she would have found out all about his dealings with Bertragh.

Briefly Rik wondered if he should go to her and tell her what he knew, in return for a pardon for his acts. Surely one of the First, a Terrarch sorceress would know what to do about the Ultari. As quickly as the thought entered his mind, he suppressed it. There would be no pardon for him and the others. The best he could hope for was a quick death if his role in all of this was found out.

The bridgeback lurched out of the courtyard and into the square. Ahead of them a crowd of people were gathered to enter the main temple. A few of them turned to stare curiously at the passing soldiers.

Another thought stole into his mind. The factor and Zarahel would have to die. They knew too much and they must not be allowed to spill that knowledge to the authorities. That would mean the pyre for Rik and his friends as surely as if he had confessed. As soon as he got the chance, he would talk with Weasel and the Barbarian. They would find a way to kill the Prophet and his companion.

“I tell you I’d shag her,” said the Barbarian, looking meaningfully in the direction of Lady Asea’s wyrm. It was well out in front, following the trail of the ripjacks as they loped towards the mountains.

“You’re mad,” said Toadface. “One of the First? I would be so scared I could not get it up.”

“She could make my soldier stand at attention any time,” said the Barbarian and guffawed. He elbowed Rik. “I said, she could make my soldier stand at attention any time.”

“I heard you the first time,” said Rik. “Better make sure she doesn’t.”

“Why? From what I heard I would not be the first man she’s ridden.”

“Bellow it a bit louder, why don’t you?” Rik said. “There’s the slim possibility she might not have heard you that time.”

“There’s no need to be touchy just because your girl went off with the Lieutenant…”

“What?” Sergeant Hef asked, turning to look back at them all with his wise monkey eyes.

“The Lieutenant and some of his brother officers were in Mama Horne’s on Solace night,” said Weasel, sucking his teeth with a certain grim satisfaction. His eyes never left Gunther’s face.

“The Light will forgive your lies,” said the fanatic. He was obviously still in a charitable mood after his experience in the mines. Rik almost missed the old Gunther who would have been raving and threatening Weasel by now. His forbearance was starting to be more annoying than his former ranting.

“If that’s true I would keep quiet about it,” said Hef, and the utter seriousness of his tone quietened them all down. “The Exalted have a way of getting even with men who do them down.”

“Can’t say as I blame him,” said the Barbarian. “Rik’s girl is very pretty.”

“She’s not my girl,” said Rik.

“Then why are you moping like dog whose bone’s been took away.”

“I am not moping.”

“Whatever you say,” said the Barbarian. He looked back at Lady Asea’s wyrm. “I tell you, I would definitely shag her.”

Sardec watched the mountains come closer. He was alone on his wyrm and he had plenty of time to think. It was the second time in as many weeks he had been ordered up here among the hill-tribes.

He looked at Asea’s great black mount. Of all the wyrms, it was the only one that did not show any unease in the presence of the ripjack pack. He guessed it was used to them. Certainly the black-clad servant guiding it showed not the slightest difficulty in keeping the bridgeback under control. The other one stood behind the lady surveying the terrain with a bow in his hand.

A bow, Sardec thought. Why a bow? Perhaps Asea had some ancient enchanted arrowheads among her gear, he thought sourly. She seemed to have just about everything else. It was amazing that she had on her person so many relics of Al’Terra. Well, she was one of the First.

He put his spyglass to his eye and studied the pack. He was still annoyed about the way she had unleashed it while he was still in the courtyard. He was sure that had been deliberate, an effort to humiliate him in front of the men that had almost succeeded. It had taken every ounce of self-control he had not to draw Moonshade when those killers surrounded him. He could still remember their acrid reptilian stench, and the smell of rotten meat coming from their mouths. If her control had been less than perfect, or just one of the ripjacks had gone into killing rage, the whole pack would have fallen on him. He had seen such things happen.

The leading ripjack had its head bowed over the trail, sniffing. It was the dominant female, the one which the Leash would be attuned to most strongly. The rest of the pack would follow its lead. Even as he watched, they did, spreading out in wide hunting arc, searching for the prey they had been promised.

After a few moments he found his thoughts going back to the human girl. It embarrassed him but the encounter still carried a huge erotic charge for him. Perhaps when he got back from this mission, he would seek her out again. Or perhaps he would seek out another human wench, maybe two.

If he got back, whispered a small scared part of his mind.

They made camp close to their previous site. Rik joined the group of soldiers who watched, amazed, as Lady Asea set up camp. From the luggage on the side of her wyrm, the two servants produced what looked like a short metal pole.

A word from the sorceress and the pole telescoped upward to half again the height of a man. Moments later filaments shot out from the top and buried themselves in the ground. There was a blur of motion too fast for the eye to follow and a tent stood there. Its fabric shimmered oddly, seeming to blend in with the mountainous background, and Rik knew that from a distance it would be very difficult to see.

As if she has not just performed a wonder, Lady Asea strode off to set the wards around the camp, leaving her strangely robed servants to tranship her gear from the wyrm to the inside of the tent.

After a discreet nod to Weasel, Rik headed off among the trees like a man looking to have a piss. The former poacher joined him a few minutes later, and they stood watching the stars emerge above the mountains.

“I know what you are going to say,” said Weasel in a low voice.

“You do?” Both of them looked around to make sure no one was near.

“About Bertragh — it would be better for all of us if he was not taken alive. No knowing what he might tell Lady Asea or the Inquisition if he is given a chance.”

Rik looked at him for a moment, his natural reticence warring with the emotions that threatened to tear him apart.

“What else is on your mind? You’ve been sulky as a kid all day. It’s not the girl, is it?”

Rik thought about it for a moment. “Maybe. It’s part of it at least.”

“Then don’t be so bloody childish. If she likes you, she likes you. If you like her, you like her. The business with the Lieutenant was just that: business.”

“You think?”

“She certainly talked enough about you when you were away on your little mission. Maybe if you had stayed, the rest of it would never have happened.”

“You think?”

“Practising to be a parrot, are we? There’s only one way to find out what any woman is thinking and it does not involve magic.”

“What’s that?”

“Ask her.”

“I’ll think about it but it’s not just that…” Now that they had come to the crunch, Rik felt his reluctance to talk about it return. He saw Weasel was waiting.

“What else?”

“It’s the other thing. You think we did wrong with those books, that maybe you could go mad or be swallowed by the shadow just by reading them? Do you think our souls are in peril for what we did?”

“What am I, Halfbreed, a bloody priest? How should I know?” He tried to make a joke of it, but there was an underlying seriousness to his tone. “Maybe you should have listened to the Barbarian — he told you no good ever came of reading books.”

“I am starting to think he might be right. Make sure you mention Bertragh to him.”

“Oh I think that thought may have worked its way even through the armour plate he calls a skull.”

“He should give it a warm welcome. It’s in a strange place.”

“Ha-bloody-ha. Come on we’d best get back and grab some grub. At least the weather has improved since our last little jaunt up here.”

If it had, Rik could not tell. It was just as cold and just as windy. The only improvement he could spot was the lack of intermittent snow. Maybe that was what Weasel meant.

On his way back Rik was surprised to find Lady Asea looking at him. He shivered and it was not with the cold. What did she want, he wondered? She beckoned to him. He swallowed, tried to keep his guilt off his face, and strode as confidently as he could over to her.

“Can I help you, Lady?” he asked. She studied him for a while, head tilted to one side. She walked around him. He stood stock still wondering at this sinister inspection. She moved with the gait of a hunting cat. The ripjacks followed at her heel. Suddenly he was sweating. He felt the tension build within him. What did she know? What did she suspect?

“Who was your father?” she asked.

“I do not know, Lady.”

“Your mother?”

“She died when I was still a baby. I never knew her.”

She came to a halt just in front of him. He found he had to look up at her face. He saw his own features distorted in the mirror of her liquid metal mask. “You have Terrarch blood.”

“Many people have told me that, Lady, but I do not know.”

“I am telling you, boy, and I do know.”

Rik did not know what to say. He was more shocked than he would have expected. All his life he had wondered about this, but to have it confirmed by one of the First was more than he could have expected. She spoke a word and reached out and touched his brow. He felt the shocking spark of power pass between them. What had she done, he wondered?

“You have Exalted blood and something more, and yet you are a common soldier. That is a shame.”

“There is nothing I can do about it, Lady.”

“One more thing,” she said. “My agents in Redtower have reported certain rumours to me.”


“They concern certain mystical books.”

It took every ounce of his self-control to keep from flinching. He had been a fool to imagine that they could get away with selling the books without it being noticed. Of course, the Terrarchs had informers everywhere. Of course, word had got out. He steeled himself for the accusation to come.

“Books, milady?”

“It seems they were being sold by a group of soldiers. Three soldiers. Would you know anything about that?” What does she know, Rik wondered?

“Why would I know about such things, milady?” She looked at him and gave a dazzling smile. Rik knew how a bird felt when confronted with a serpent.

“If you should hear anything about such a thing, please let me know.”

“Of course, milady.”

Without another word, she turned and walked away, the ripjack pack following at her heel. Rik stood absolutely still. He felt weak. It was a long time before he could return to his duties.

Chapter Thirty-Two

Sardec was surprised when the dark servant arrived with a politely worded request that he join his mistress for conversation. He was even more surprised by the opulence within her tent. The floor was scattered with rugs and the air was filled with the smell of incense. A single tripod-mounted glowstone lit the interior and warmed the cold night air. Lady Asea certainly believed in travelling in comfort.

She had removed her silver mask. It lay atop a small chest that doubled as a table; for all intents and purposes it was just a plain silver mask once more. He looked at it feeling a touch of awe. It was another link with the mighty magics of the past.

“Greetings, Prince, and be welcome.”

“I thank you for your hospitality.”

“It is as nothing. Please be seated.” He sat cross-legged on one of the small rugs. She sat opposite him. He was immediately aware of her overwhelming predatory beauty, of the sensuality she wielded like a weapon. Surely she was not bringing it fully to bear on him.

“I see you are admiring my mask. It is another work of art in its way, forged by the smiths of Athaenar in the Mountains of the Mist, in the world we lost.”

“It’s a pity we also lost the knowledge to make such items,” he said.

“We are so much less than we were.”

“You miss the home world. That is understandable…”

“Alas, it is not a matter of mere sentiment, my Prince, it is something more. We are quite literally diminished. To the First, the lack is like the lack of breath you feel when your dragon flies at great height. We are weaker, our senses are less keen. Magic was so wound up in the fabric of our beings that we are physically less capable than we once were. You grew up here, and so are not aware of this, but I can assure you that once you walked the green woods of Al’Terra you would understand instantly what I am saying…”

“I regret that I have never had that experience, Lady Asea, nor am I likely to. The way is closed. There can be no return.”


Sardec has the sudden uncomfortable feeling that this whole conversation had been pre-planned by Lady Asea, that the mask had been placed where it was to draw him into it, that his own reaction had been predicted and planned for.

For the life of him, he could not see why. Once again he felt suddenly out of his depth with this ageless beauty and her deep knowledge of things he could never begin to appreciate. And doubtless, he thought sourly, that too was part of her plan.

His ruminations were interrupted by one of her servants. He could not tell which, they were so similar in appearance and bearing. The man bore a bottle of wine. The shape and colour of the bottle marked it as being from the vineyards of the Selari. Since Asea’s clan were famous for their subtly narcotic vintages, he suspected it would prove interesting drinking. He wondered too whether this interruption had been planned. For the first time, he noticed something odd about the servant’s eyes. They reflected the light like a dog’s. Was it possible he was not entirely human, was perhaps some sort of homunculus?

“I am afraid I have little understanding of sorcery, milady.” He said just to see what the response would be.

“That is to be expected given your family heritage.” The wine was poured in goblets of crystal. It made his tongue tingle and almost immediately he started to relax. “The Harkes are more famous for their knowledge of dragons than of magic.”

“Alas, these are not the best of days for dragons either.”

“This is not the best of worlds for dragons. Like ourselves, dragons are intrinsically magical creatures. That is why they are dying off, or returning to wyrmhood.”

“Returning to wyrmhood, madam? I thought they were degenerating into it.” He wondered if she was being subtly insulting, knowing that he was of the youngest generation of Terrarchs and must have often heard disparaging comparisons between his contemporaries and their elders.

“Adaana raised dragons up from wyrms. The lesser breed came first.”

“That is not what most of the lore-books say.”

“That is what Adaana told me.”

Sardec cursed. Of course, she was of the First. She was a famous sorceress even among them. It was perfectly possible she had spoken with the Dragon Angel in person.

“That is an unanswerable argument, my Lady, although it is not one that is common knowledge.”

“A great deal of the truth gets suppressed these days — for political purposes.” Now we come to the meat of it, he thought. He understood what was going on here now. He was being tested to see where his political sympathies lay. He took another sip of the wine and decided to enjoy the process as much as possible. “A great deal of the truth has been suppressed since we came to this world.”

“I feel sure you are going to provide me with more examples.”

“I am not sure you will like the one that most instantly springs to mind.”

“Perhaps I might be the judge of that.”

“Very well. Dragons, those proud symbols of the Terrarch race, are not the only things she raised up. She raised up our people as well.”

“This is hardly news, Lady. The Books tell us that.”

“They do not say what she raised us up from.”

“Why, our ancestral race, of course.”

“And what would that be?” she prompted.

“The Al.”

“And what exactly were the Al?”

“I am starting to feel like I did at my first catechism, Lady, but in honour of your beauty and your status among the First I will answer you. They were people very much like us, but lacking the gift of immortality the Dragon Angel gave us.”

“What if I told you they were people very much like those soldiers out there?”

He laughed outright, the idea was so fantastic. “You might as well claim we are descended from apes.”

She smiled back, amused by his response, and then spoke swiftly. “I could claim that too.”

“You could, Lady, but you won’t. You are far too well-bred and sensible.”

“It is an interesting experience being patronised by one so young.”

“I do not mean to patronise you, Lady. I merely assumed…”

“You merely assume that my thoughts move down the same conventional grooves as everyone else’s.”

“That is not the way I would have chosen to put the idea. You are famously Scarlet. I don’t think I would ever accuse you of being conventional.”

“Thank you.” There was silence for a moment, and Sardec wondered again how closely this interview was going according to her plan. He decided to take the initiative.

“If what you say is true, why did Adaana not tell anybody else? Why were her words not more widely reported?”

“They were, once. We have chosen to forget them. They do not suit our image of ourselves, or the image we chose to present to our so-called inferiors. We have told lies so long that many of us have come to believe them.”

Sardec cocked his head to one side, and studied her. As far as he could tell, she was serious, but he realised he was in no great position to judge. All of the First were consummate actors when it suited them.

“You sound almost like a revolutionist, Lady Asea. I had not thought the Scarlet faction had descended to quite that level.”

“Perhaps I sound like a revolutionist to you. To myself, I sound like someone concerned with the truth.” He ignored the implied insult.

“I am sure you did not invite me here to bait me, my Lady. I am sure you have mentioned all this for a purpose.”

“You were asked to watch me, were you not?”

“I am not sure what you mean.”

“Surely my words were clear enough. Would you like me to explain them further?”

“If you wish…”

“You were told to watch me by Colonel Xeno. There is no need to deny it. I know him well enough to know how he thinks. The Greens have the ear of the Queen now. He and his type would have matters stay that way.”

That was probably perfectly true, Sardec thought.

“Your superiors have also no doubt told you that I harbour revolutionary ideas. I merely want you to understand the full extent and nature of them so that there is no misunderstanding between us.”

“I am grateful for your frankness.” Perhaps he was. It was becoming clear to him that Lady Asea was, despite her appearance of youth and beauty, one of those elderly Terrarchs who possessed fixed ideas on certain subjects and had decided to convert the world to those ideas no matter how ludicrous. Surely she did not think he was one of those young nobles who sympathised with such hare-brained philosophising! She smiled at him, almost as if she could read the thoughts swimming across the surface of his mind. “I am not altogether sure it is necessary though.”

“Clarity of understanding is rarely a bad thing and often necessary.” She sounded a little wistful now, and he felt obscurely as if he had failed some test and was lessened in her estimation. It was a feeling he had experienced rather too often recently.

“Forgive me if I seem rude but you have not yet told me why you are telling me this.”

She looked at him again, seemed to measure him, and come to some conclusion. “I am telling you this because I want you to remember what I have said.”

“You flatter me.”

“Not at all. I want someone to remember the words of the Dragon Angel should anything happen to me in these mountains. I have left the knowledge among my papers but who knows what might happen to them if they fall into the hands of the Inquisition.”

“I feel it best to tell you I have no sympathy with your ideas, Lady Asea.”

“I appreciate your candour but that is irrelevant. You will remember the words, and if you do not come to understand them, you may pass them on to someone who does.”

Slowly the significance of the rest of her statement sank in.

“You do not seriously believe anything will happen to you here, my Lady?”

“I think it is possible.”

“The hill-men can be fierce but I doubt they will attack such a strong force.”

“It is not the hill-men I fear.”

“Then what is it?”

“It is past Solace night.”

“True but that does not answer my question.”

“Solace commemorates the day when the Dragon’s Gate was closed. The reason the ritual was performed on that night was because it was the night when the powers of magic were at their strongest even in this benighted world. The night remains so.”

“But it is passed.”

“No. What we call Solace night is celebrated on the same night every year. It is part of our calendar of religious festivals. The true Solace night does not fall thus. It is a time when the stars and planets are all in conjunction when forces flow free. The date on which it falls varies and long ago parted company from the day we call Solace.”

“So what you would call true Solace has yet to come.”

“It falls tomorrow night.”

“And you feel this has some threatening significance?”

“I am certain of it.”

“Would you care to explain why?”

“The last time you were in these mountains you fought and killed a sorcerer.”

“One of my men killed the sorcerer.”

“I believe that it was part of a larger pattern.”

“What do you mean?”

“On hearing your tale I sent a request to the Temple for some ancient books that were in their keeping. Books that were on the Black Index. Proscribed books dealing with the Ultari and their demon god.”


“My request was denied.”

“They denied access to the books to one of the First?”


“You should petition the Queen.”

“No need. They told me why my petition was denied.”


“They no longer had the books. They vanished five years ago at about the same time as a young priest, a priest who was under suspicion of studying certain forbidden mysteries. His name was Alzibar.”

“The same name as the sorcerer we found…”

“I would guess the same sorcerer.”

“It’s good we killed him then.”

“Yes. But he was not working alone. Perhaps he was working for someone else. Think about it — where had he been for the past five years? Who sheltered him? Why did he choose this exact time to come back?”

“You think someone sent him?”

“We stand once more on the verge of war. On the very eve of it, sorcerers and demons appear virtually within our borders. They are in league with the hill-tribes. Don’t you find it all a little suspicious?”

Sardec did when it was phrased like that. “Why tell me this now? Why did you not mention this to Colonel Xeno?”

“I did. It’s one reason you are here.”

It certainly had a superficial plausibility, Sardec thought, but of course he was in no position to find out the truth of her allegations, and would not be until they returned from this mission. Once more he felt out of his depth.

“You are saying we can expect to see more of those demons.”

“On the night of True Solstice old dark things have the easiest entrance into our world. I think something will be invited through. That is why I am here myself and in the full war gear of the First.”

“I suppose you mentioned this to Colonel Xeno too.”

“Of course.” What if she had? What if it was not her who was lying here but Colonel Xeno? But why would the Colonel do that to one of his own officers? What could he possibly have to gain? Having fought just one of the Ultari, he shuddered to think what might happen if an army of them suddenly appeared.

“Whatever else might be the case, it would seem best if we could get to the source of this before the night of True Solace”

“On this we are agreed. Time presses. Midnight is the optimal time for summoning.”

“We shall press on with all possible speed.”

Another thought occurred to Sardec. “If what you say is true, the chances are we will find what you seek somewhere within the mine.”

“Such would be my guess.”

Sardec did not like the way this was going at all. It came to him that if there was something in that mine that frightened one of the First, he ought to be very afraid too.

Chapter Thirty-Three

Zarahel looked down the long valley. Things were starting to go his way now. Several hundred men of his war band, mostly Agante but with a few brave outcasts drawn from the disaffected young of the other tribes, had gathered in response to his summons. They would make perfect witnesses for his ascendancy to great power.

He scratched his neck. There was a massive purple blister where his familiar drank from his blood. Others covered the rest of his body. They had stopped itching now but there were small hard things within them. Sometimes it felt as if they were moving, but that was a small enough price to pay for the power the familiar provided and the link with the Old Gods it gave him.

When first Alzibar had hatched it from the purple eggs using his alchemy, Zarahel had been horrified. Now he was used to it, and he was uncomfortable if he could not feel it scuttling around under his loose robes. The narcotic bites provided him with a euphoric confidence beyond anything he had ever experienced. His sorcerous powers had grown because of it. Perhaps now he would even be a match for a Terrarch.

Bertragh looked better. He had been in a strange fey mood for the past few days. He looked at Zarahel as if half expecting him to betray their masters in the Brotherhood. It would not matter much after tonight. Uran Ultar would be summoned and the assembled warriors would witness it. Word that he enjoyed the Old Gods favour would spread from tribe to tribe and they would swarm to his banner. Those that did not would be eliminated by the night-black sorcery he would command. He would be lord of the mountains and holy war would restore the empire his ancestors had lost.

Alzibar being slain had proved a good thing. Now matters lay purely in the hands of men and that was as it should be. The Old God really did favour him, as it had whispered in his dreams. He shivered as he remembered the black visions that had swept through his mind the night before. He had seen the past.

He had seen Achenar in its days of ancient glory when the proud civilisation of the Agante had dominated these lands, and the priests had offered up their screaming captives on the altars of Uran Ultar. He had seen the things that scuttled in the depths below the mountains, the living machines that wove spidersilk armour for the armies of Achenar, and birthed their living weapons. He had seen what the Spider God had provided his people with in return for the tithe of souls, and he knew it was a price worth paying. He had seen the time when all the proud emperors of men had sent tribute to Achenar.

He had seen other things in his dreams. He had seen the war of men and Ultari and Terrarch. He had seen the dragon-riders incinerating the Spider God’s followers. He had seen the final battle that had destroyed the surface city and sealed the city below. He had seen the way Uran Ultar had retreated through his portal, taking the souls and life force of his people with him, to wait, like a great trapdoor spider, for someone to come and free him.

Today was that day. He would crack the final secrets within Alzibar’s books. He would restore the ancient glory of his folk. He would drive the Terrarchs from this land. It was his destiny. Nothing could stand in his way. The Exalted were weak now, fragmented into many rival Realms and men were stronger and had guns. This time things would be different. With Uran Ultar’s help, men would prevail.

Nonetheless he was not taking any chances. Since his arrival he had already dispatched small groups of scouts to watch the approaches and report back. There would be no surprise attacks this time. Even without Alzibar to set wards he was determined on that.

Now all he had to do was make his way down into the depths of Achenar and seize control of his own destiny.

“Our lord and master is in a big hurry,” said Weasel. He was right, Rik thought. They’d already spent more than half a day on wyrmback and had not stopped to eat.

“It looks like we’re going to have trouble.” Rik said, studying the slopes above them and the peaks beyond. His mind still dwelt on Asea’s words. She knew something. The question was what? And there was another question — what was he going to do about it? Plotting to kill Bertragh was one thing, murdering one of the First surrounded by her bodyguards and her ripjacks and the Queen’s soldiers was another. He was not sure it was possible. Ever since he had picked up those damned books, one thing had led to another. He felt like his feet were on a long and slippery slope leading down to the edge of a vast chasm.

“Maybe the witch told him something,” said Leon. It was all Rik could do to keep from starting. It sounded like Leon had been reading his mind. “He spent enough time in her tent last night.”

“Can’t say as I blame him. I would shag her,” said the Barbarian.

“So you told anybody who would listen yesterday,” said Sergeant Hef. “I would keep quiet about it if I were you. Maybe those black clad henchmen will hear you.”

“Maybe they’ll tell her,” said the Barbarian. “Who knows where that might lead?”

“To you being burned at the stake,” said the Sergeant.

“It might be worth it.”

Rik studied the clouds massing around the peaks. It looked like the weather was going to change again. It also did so quickly up here in the mountains.

“It’s not her I am worried about,” said Hef. “It’s the hill-men. Some of them are out for blood and this is their territory. Once word that we’re here hits the high valley of the Agante, I expect they will be paying us a visit.”

“Bring them on,” said the Barbarian. “I will get to impress the Lady Asea with my heroism.”

“If she was impressed by stupidity,” said the Sergeant, “you would be in with a chance.

“No,” said the Barbarian proudly. “If she was impressed by stupidity I would be in bed with her already.”

It took him a few moments to realise what he had just said.

Zarahel sat in his sanctum in the old mansion and studied the text once more. He had it now. The narcotic venom burning in his veins had given him the critical insights. He had been guided by unerring instinct to the right page of the right volume. He reached within his robes and stroked the creature affectionately. He had found the secrets that Alzibar had sought to hide from him. Power beyond his wildest dreams was within his grasp.

Of course, he thought sourly, there was still the little matter of performing the ritual correctly and making contact with the demon god and binding it to his will. That was a prospect that had daunted a sorcerer considerably more experienced than himself. The familiar bit him again. Ecstatic joy and renewed confidence came with the bite.

Of course, he could do it. Of course he would succeed. Something wriggled within the blister on his neck. The sensation was oddly pleasurable.

He stood up and for the first time in hours became aware of his body and his surroundings. His back ached a little. His eyes felt raw. Blood from the battle his followers had lost to the Foragers still stained the mansion’s walls. He could smell it in the air.

He glanced out the window to where the dark waters of the lake reflected the cloudy sky. In the distance the work-teams laboured away around the mine. He needed the ways below to be clear by tonight, and the damage those idiotic soldiers had done to be repaired, or all of his plans would come to naught.

Bertragh looked at him warily. There was fear in his eyes now. The prospect of what they were doing was becoming real to him. His gaze was drawn inexorably to Zarahel’s neck and the purple blister visible there. The prophet pulled up his cowl to cover it.

Zarahel packed the books away into their leather satchel and made for the door. “Come on. We’d best begin preparations for the ritual. Are you certain you know your part?”

“As certain as I know my own name, Zarahel.” The sorcerer hoped so. When dealing with demons, you could afford no mistakes.

In the corner a fly struggled in a cobweb. The spider came ever closer. Zarahel paused to watch, fascinated.

“Looks like they are at it again,” said the Barbarian. “I wonder what they are talking about up there.”

Rik followed his gaze, fear gnawed at his stomach. Lieutenant Sardec had joined the Lady Asea on the back of her huge black wyrm, his own mount followed close behind. Rik wondered if she was telling Sardec about the books. He felt sure now that she knew more about the matter than she had told him. A word in the officer’s ear and he and Weasel and the Barbarian would be having their chestnuts roasted on an Inquisition fire. As if he sensed the intensity of Rik’s gaze, one of Asea’s servants turned and looked back in his direction.

Rik wondered about those black clad men too. They did everything for her. They were servants. They were mahouts and they were bodyguards. He was sure, too, that they would be full of unpleasant surprises. He hoped that he or one of the others got to Bertragh before they did. Although perhaps that did not matter now.

How quickly things changed in such short times, he thought, studying the cloud girt peaks and the grey landscape that stretched out below them. The last time they had passed this way, he had nothing to worry about but keeping himself alive in the teeth of a hill-man assault. Now that seemed like the least of his worries. There was the possibility of demons being summoned. He might need to commit murder. He had thought that long ago he had given up worrying about his immortal soul, but he found now that those worries had returned.

Bertragh had done nothing to him personally, had been quite fair if truth be told, and had paid him a small fortune for the books. Now he was driven by necessity to cause the factor’s death.

The words of an old Sorrow street preacher returned to him. We do not set out to sin. We do not set out to imperil our souls. We walk down that path slowly, circumspectly, one small step at a time, and before we know it we find ourselves at the edge of the abyss of Shadow.

That certainly had been the way with him these past few days, although if truth be told, he had always known of the wickedness of certain of his actions, and there had been nothing circumspect about it.

He wondered whether his soul would writhe in an eternity of torments, consumed by the demons of shadow, but never fully dying. If he died here in these mountains, unblessed, he would find out for sure. It was just one more reason he had for not wanting to die.

Another was Rena. Having heard Weasel’s words he recognised the truth of them. He guessed he had always known it. He had just been hurt and angry and consumed with his jealousy and envy of Sardec. He wanted, if he could, to put matters right with Rena and restore her good opinion of him. That seemed very important now.

He saw movement on the mountainside above them. It looked like somebody was watching them. He whistled and shouted a warning. A few moments later a puff of smoke emerged from among the boulders above and a shot skittered off the stones near the pathway. The wyrm paused, its head swivelling to try and sight the threat.

Rik took careful aim and fired away, at just about the same time as Weasel did, at a spot about 100 yards up the hill. They heard a scream, followed by more shouts. The cloud of acrid smoke blocked out sight. Automatically Rik began to reload. He bit down on his cartridge, and the taste of saltpetre filled his mouth. He dropped it into the barrel, followed by the bullet, then he rammed both home with the rod he had unclipped from below the barrel. In the time he took to do this others fired, and more smoke billowed. The mahout drove the wyrm out of the cloud. Rik caught sight of figures loping up hill, taking advantage of cover. He fired again and missed.

The other soldiers blazed away. The wyrms moved out of the smoke clouds. Rik was not sure what the attackers had meant to achieve. Perhaps they thought the Foragers might panic and run, or they could spook the great beasts. Perhaps their hatred of the lowlanders had simply gotten the better of them. It did not matter now. Nothing human could live in the hail of lead that enveloped them.

Within minutes the hill-men were down, musket balls riddling their flesh. Great wyrms stalked towards their position.

“Steady, lads,” said Sergeant Hef. “Eyes peeled for ambush.”

“I thought we just had one,” said the Barbarian.

The bridgebacks reached the corpses. Warriors swarmed down from the howdahs, Rik among them. A quick inspection of the corpses showed him what had happened. The eyes staring sightlessly at the sky were set in unlined faces. The oldest could not have been more than fourteen.

“They were bloody kids,” said Weasel. “Must have been on a scouting expedition or something. Decided to take potshots at the foreigners. Silly bastards did not know any better.”

“Shooting them will have let everybody in the mountains know we are here,” said Rik. It was true. The thunder of musket shot had echoed down the valleys.

“They are food for the wyrms now,” said Hef. The crunching of bone and flesh told him the great beasts had started to feed.

“Let’s hope we’re not before this day is out,” said Rik.

Zarahel smiled as he caught the familiar stink from the newly re-opened entrance to the mine. The tunnel here was full of it. He turned to the tribesmen and spoke.

“You have done well. Soon you will be rewarded for your faith and your patience.”

They might have possessed both in abundance but their faces showed only unease. They would be happy to get out of this darkness as quickly as possible, and Zarahel would be happy for them to go. The sight of the blisters on his neck and hands might have made them uneasy as well. “You are dismissed. All except Bertragh. He will accompany me.”

The factor appeared quite as reluctant as the others to follow him, and Zarahel really did not blame him. The mine was unsafe here. That was not important. What was important was that Zarahel recognised this place and the way was open to the lair.

“Follow me,” he said to Bertragh, bowing his head as the ceiling lowered. “Try to keep up.”

The tunnel was long and narrow and there was a faint sheen of damp slime on the walls. Zarahel moved ever deeper into the gloom. Bertragh followed holding the lantern, moving cautiously down the rock-strewn corridor. A dank wind carrying a loathsome scent hit their nostrils. They proceeded ever deeper. Massive scuttling figures emerged from the gloom. Their carapaces were white. Zarahel almost understood the gibbering that emerged from the small octopoid heads set at the front of their long segmented bodies.

Bertragh gasped, overcome by what he saw. He fell to his knees almost weeping in terror. Triumph filled Zarahel. The guardians had come to greet him and lead him to his destiny. Flanked by Ultari, marched almost like a prisoner, they headed into what had once been the great underground city of the Spider God. He knew he was on his way now to awaken the god of his ancestors and restore their lost glory.

Rik drew his coat tighter about him, and adjusted his scarf. There was a tension in the air he had not felt before, a suggestion of strange unnatural forces gathering around them in the mountains. He told himself it was just his imagination, but he felt sure it was not. He felt he was being watched by thousands of invisible eyes.

He wondered at the fate that had drawn them back to this valley so soon after they had left it. He cursed the day they had taken those damn books. If they had not, none of this might have happened. They would have been back in camp, drilling and waiting for the war to start, not plodding on wyrmback through these accursed mountains.

“You’re very quiet, Rik,” said Leon. He took the pipe from his mouth, tamped in tobacco and put it back in place unlit. “Got something on your mind?”

“Just wondering why there are so many of us being sent out to guard Lady Asea. She looks capable of protecting herself.”

“I reckon it’s because she is one of the First,” said Sergeant Hef. “Make sure no hill-men have their evil way with her.”

“I wouldn’t mind having my evil way with her,” said the Barbarian.

“Why is she here? What is she looking for?”

“The Light sent her to guide us and watch over us,” said Gunther. Everybody ignored him.

“Who knows with the Exalted? Half the time I am not sure they know their own minds. How are we supposed to know what is going on with them.”

“You reckon we are heading back to the old mine?” the Barbarian asked. “This path looks awfully bloody familiar.”

“You just work that out?” asked Weasel.

Zarahel stood in the centre of the great hatching chamber. It was an awesome sight, just like the city had been. A massive pattern resembling an intricate swirling spider-web was laid in the centre of the floor. It centred on a thing that was part altar, part lectern and part statue of a monster Ultari. This was the place where he must perform the ritual.

His mind spun from what he had seen on his way here. The ancient city was coming to life. Some of the old living machines were working. Some of the guardians were mobile. Some of the sacrifices had already been reborn. Alzibar’s sorcery had worked to that extent at least. Things were prepared for the return of Uran Ultar. Once the ritual was complete the city would be restored to its former glory. The life force of the god would flood through everything and all the dormant power of the Elder race would wake.

He looked around. The walls were covered in masses of near translucent egg-like sacs. Within each, the outline of an Ultari was visible. He knew they were waiting only for the touch of their deity, a darker god by far than the one the Terrarchs worshipped, and one more likely to manifest his power in this world.

He smiled to himself, touched the jelly like integument of one of his blisters, placed the book on the altar and began.

Chapter Thirty-Four

“Looks like we are expected this time,” said Sardec, as the bridgebacks headed downslope. Hill-men had lined the ridge top, lying flat with readied weapons. Their ambush might have been successful too, had not the ripjacks hissed a warning and then loped forward obeying the unspoken command of their mistress. The battle had been short and sharp. There had been only a few dozen riflemen up there against almost eighty wyrm mounted Foragers and the ripjack pack.

Looking through the telescope Sardec could see windows of the manor house were crowded with more men, as was the roof. There were scores of tents set up around the building and the ground between swarmed with warriors. There were an awful lot more hill-men this time. They were outnumbered. Sardec spoke reluctantly, knowing it was in the best interests of his force, and the First he guarded, even though he knew it made him sound like a coward. “It might be best to send back for reinforcements.”

“We do not have the time,” said Lady Asea. “Powerful magic is at work below the mountain.”

“Magic, Lady?”

“A great and unholy ritual is being enacted. It would be in the best interests of the Realm if we stopped it.”

“Perhaps so, Lady, but we are outnumbered by three to one, at very least.”

“We need to get into that mine.” There was a look of horror on her face that was visible through the mask. It seemed sculpted onto her metal features. Sardec did not like to think about anything that could frighten one of the First.

“You have sorcery that can aid us now?”

“I need to preserve as much power as I can for the main battle but I will give you such help as I can.”

Sardec considered this. They had the wyrms, bridgebacks and ripjacks. And perhaps they had the element of surprise if they did the unexpected. He looked at his men and saw expectancy written on every face.

“Forward!” he said. “Attack the camp. Scatter the bastards. Lady Asea’s sorcery will protect us!”

Sardec prayed to the God of Light that it was true.

Zarahel spoke the words of the spell. Bertragh echoed them from his position at the edge of the pattern. Power swirled through the pattern that surrounded him. Magic flowed through his veins. His blisters moved in time to the rhythm of his words. The monstrous egg-sacs on the walls mimicked them. Overhead faint flickering images spun through the air, taking on shape, forming a mirror of the pattern on the floor. Faint lines of fire converged above his head, just above the altar, forming the centre of the portal. Beyond it, Uran Ultar waited to come through.

The great beast’s muscles surged below Rik. The bridgebacks spread out, moving line abreast in long rows in order to allow the men in the howdahs to bring the maximum amount of firepower to bear.

He crouched as low as he could, clutching his rifle in his bandaged hands, trying to make himself as small a target as possible. He did not envy the mahout ahead of them, an obvious target for the hill-men’s fire.

The ripjack pack loped forward, hissing defiance, gnashing their teeth, mad keen to get to grips with their prey. Up ahead the hill-men massed. They had no grasp of formation. They merely kneeled or stood where they wanted and made ready to fire. Rik did not delude himself. The hill-men were excellent shots. He was not sure the Foragers could match them from their rolling platforms on the back of the bridgebacks. From where he crouched Sardec’s decision looked like monumental insanity. He only hoped that Lady Asea’s sorcery was as potent as everybody supposed it was.

She stood erect on the back of her massive black bridgeback. The air around her shimmered faintly. She looked poised and confident. In her hand something metallic glittered. She looked glorious, a figure from an earlier, more epic age. Just the sight of her brought a catch to Rik’s throat, although he knew that it shouldn’t.

Musket fire crackled in the evening gloom. Some of the hill-men had opened up with a volley. Somewhere someone bellowed for them to stop. The wyrms were still out of range.

Closer and closer they came, skirting the edge of the ruins of Achenar, moving ever nearer to the mansion. Rik felt a faint glimmer of hope. If they could just reach the camp and get among the hill-men they would have a chance. In close combat nothing human could match a wyrm. Weasel gave him one of his fearless grins. The Barbarian checked his musket. Leon squatted at the back of the howdah out of sight. The rest of them hunkered down and made ready for battle.

Musket fire began in earnest now, spattering the earth around them, kicking up small clouds of dust that mingled with the huge ones raised by the bridgeback’s claws. Their wyrm bellowed. Rik saw blood glistening along its side. Some scales were missing. The enemy had gotten first blood. A triumphant roar from the hill-men told him they knew it too.

Rik held his fire. It was one thing hitting something the size of a wyrm at this range. It was another hitting a man. A horn sounded. The wyrms picked up speed. The bridgeback’s stride lengthened. Their bellowing increased and still the ripjack pack loped ahead. Rik held onto the side of the howdah grimly. Inside it, Foragers were being tossed about like dice in a cup. There was no way anyone could even think of shooting now.

Clouds of smoke partially obscured the foe. The sound of musketry filled the early evening. Off to the left, a flower of blood blossomed on a mahout’s brow. He fell sideways, tugging the reins as he went. His wyrm veered out of the formation. It smacked into a bridgeback on the far side. The two of them stumbled in a tangle of thrashing necks and limbs. The screams of crushed Foragers echoed in Rik’s ears. Hill-men cheered and jeered.

This was not going well, Rik thought. Where was the sorcery that was supposed to protect them?

Bullets cracked the wood of the howdah and bit into the side of the wyrm. The mahout bellowed encouragement to his mount. Rik tried to raise his rifle but the movement of the howdah made it impossible to get a bead on any target. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Lady Asea raise the metal wand, and bring it forward.

A bolt of lightning sprang from its tip. Thunder accompanied it like the crack of a whip. The bolt smashed forward into a hill-man, catching the barrel of his rifle, making his hair stand on end and his flesh fry. The bolt leapt from rifle barrel to rifle barrel. Rik saw a man walking briefly on stilts of lightning before his blackened corpse hit the ground.

The hill-men’s cheering turned to screams. The whip of lightning flickered again and again. More hill-men fell; others turned and fled, more from fear of the unknown power that wielded heaven’s fire than from their casualties.

The wyrms smashed through the tents, uprooting stakes, cracking the central posts. Rik winced as one of the great beasts seized a man in its jaws, raised him on high and snapped him in two with one bite. He could see others being trampled underfoot. Over to his right swarmed a closely packed mass of men. He snapped off a shot hoping to hit something in the crowd. The motion of the bridgeback swept him off his feet and by the time he regained his balance there was no opportunity to see if he had hit anything or not.

Not that it mattered now. The ripjack pack was loose among the hill-men. Not even those long knives were a match for the jaws of the beasts. Here and there a group of hill-men surrounded one and by sheer weight of numbers dragged a ripjack down despite its advantage in weight and strength and ferocity. For the most part they died where they stood, slaughtered by the ravening mass of teeth and fury that fell on them.

The hill-men broke. Some raced for the mansion, others for the slopes. From the top of the building came a steady stream of fire, until Asea raised her glowing wand and swept men from the rooftops with its lightning. How could anything human stand against that, Rik thought? He could see how with the aid of wyrms and dragons, the First had overcome his human ancestors.

Soon the enemy fire was silenced. They huddled cowed within the mansion, waiting for the Foragers to come and get them.

“Leave them,” he heard Asea shout. “We must get to the mine before it’s too late.”

Zarahel screamed. Something was wrong; pain filled him along with power. The blisters on his flesh burst. Something was hatching from them.

He ripped at his robe, desperate to see what was happening to him. Small Ultari wriggled forth all wet with blood and slime. They looked at him with their evil eyes. He wanted to run from the pattern now, but he could not. Something held him in place. Something compelled him to keep chanting the words, just as it compelled Bertragh to echo them. The factor had already tried to run away once but the Ultari guardians had forced him back. They moved round the edges of the pattern, as if performing some intricate mating dance.

The small Ultari began to move. Their slime covered his wounds and began to harden. They slithered over him, laying more slime. Some bit at him, sending the euphoric venom through his veins. The moment of doubt and horror passed. They were protecting him, he knew. They were giving him a new skin, hard enough to resist weapons. They were making him immortal. Reassured, he chanted with renewed vigour.

The wavering lines of fire steadied and grew stronger. Tendrils of energy reached out from him flowing down the pattern, outward and away through the walls of the city. He felt connected to every living machine, to every Ultari. More knowledge flooded into him. Something told him not to be afraid. He was needed here, and no harm would befall him. He began to understand why.

The Ultari were a damaged race. Their sentient sorcerer caste was dead, wiped out during the ancient pre-human wars. Those that were left were little better than living machines, mere bundles of appetite and reflex without the will of Uran Ultar to guide them. And the Spider God could only enter this world when summoned. That took a sorcerer, like him or his ancestors, the Priest Kings.

Uran Ultar had known they would be needed again when he had fled through his doorway to escape the wrath of the Terrarchs. He had compelled them to write down their secret rituals, knowing one day someone would come, seeking power, and be drawn into his web. No, that was not right. They would come and summon the god and gain ultimate power and immortality. That was the truth of it.

The armour hardened. The wrigglers moved over him. Part of him wanted to scream. Another image had entered his mind and it was not one of power and immortality. It was of a host body being prepared from within from which the mortal body of Uran Ultar would be hatched. The host body he had in mind was his own. The image remained but a moment until it was burned away by waves of pleasure and power and knowledge as more and more venom found its way into his veins.

More images flickered through his mind coming from dozens of pairs of eyes, from the dancing Ultari, from the human eyes of the sacrifices, and the inhuman eyes of the smaller aliens that swarmed through the city. He had the awareness of a god and soon he would share its consciousness.

The doorway was opening. The Scuttler in Shadows started to come through.

Sardec brought his wyrm alongside Asea’s beast. He did not like this breakneck riding around the lake with an enemy at their back, even if that enemy had been defeated.

“What is going on?” Sardec asked. He studied the sorceress carefully. It was obvious that she was deeply disturbed.

“Something is happening below the mountain. Something dreadful.”

“You wouldn’t care to be more explicit, would you?”

“Someone is waking an old and evil power.”

“How do you know?”

“I am surprised that you do not — although come to think of it, the presence of that blade of yours might insulate you from things.”