"What the hell was that?" asked Lieutenant Sardec, startled by the sound of gunfire. Most of the Foragers dived for cover, muskets held ready to respond to an attack. Rubble from fire-damaged buildings blocked part of the street. Puddles of recent rain filled the holes in the cobbles. It was a good site for an ambush. This once-prosperous district of Halim was even more run down than the rest of the Kharadrean capital.
"Shots, sir," said Sergeant Hef, standing calmly upright. The monkey-faced little human was always calm, no matter what danger threatened. Sardec would have envied him that steadiness, had it not been ludicrous for a Terrarch to envy a man like Hef anything. Sardec’s tall inhumanly lean form as much as his officer’s red jacket marked him out as a target for any rebels, but he was unwilling to show less courage in front of his men than the Sergeant.
"I meant who is shooting and what are they shooting at?"
The staccato sound of musket fire sounded again. Someone screamed.
“Could be a trap, intended to lure us into an ambush.”
Sardec shook his head. “That does not seem very likely.”
“Then I suspect, sir, that the best way to find out would be to investigate.” Sardec returned the Sergeant’s grin. He and Hef had come to understand each other very well over the past year.
“Weasel! Barbarian! The pair of you scout ahead and see what’s up. The rest of you get up off your arses and get ready to fight. If any rebels are around here, they’re going to make you do it anyway — so best be ready.”
The massive human called the Barbarian rose to his feet and drew his long knife. He scratched his bald pate, picked up his fallen tricorne hat and slammed it back on his head. “Right you are, sir.” He moved off with a silence and speed surprising in so bulky a figure.
Tall, lanky Weasel, as ugly a man as Sardec had ever set eyes on, followed him, long musket at the ready, moving with even more stealth than the huge Northman. Sardec suspected the pair of almost every crime against regulations a man could commit but they were the best men he had when it came to this sort of street fighting.
The Barbarian stalked into position on the corner then gestured for the others to come forward. Sardec drew his pistol left-handed, cursing the wound that had cost him his right hand and the ability to wield a blade. His metal hook was a poor substitute when it came to close combat.
The rest of the crew, more than thirty ragged green-tunicked humans, picked themselves up and made ready to move out. There were a lot of new faces. Many of the men who had been with the regiment when Sardec joined were dead, casualties of their struggles with the Elder world demons beneath Achenar and last summer’s march through Kharadrea. Several more had lost their lives putting down riots in the aftermath of Queen Kathea’s assassination. They were sadly missed now.
Sardec reached the corner and stuck his head around. Less than a hundred yards away a group of elaborately robed Terrarchs fought with a horde of sinister figures. The attackers had been human before they had died, but now they were something else, creatures of the darkest sorcery, re-animated by the foulest of plagues.
“More bloody walking corpses,” muttered the Barbarian. “You’d think the graveyards would be empty by now.”
“Always more deaders about,” said Weasel. “It’s been a hard winter and there’s no end of famine and plague.”
“We’ve had hard winters before,” said the Barbarian. “Somehow the dead always managed to stay where we planted them.”
“They’ve not stayed down since the night Queen Kathea died,” said Weasel.
“Maybe we are accursed for that,” said the Barbarian. Sardec knew that the risen dead had nothing to do with any curse brought on by the murder of royalty. It had begun with Jaderac’s ritual to raise the dead and use them as an army against the Taloreans. It had continued with the plague winds that had blown out of the East since the start of spring.
“Right, lads,” he said. “Fix bayonets. Remember, knock the deaders down and crush their skulls, chop them limb from limb if you have to. Don’t let them bite you either.”
Almost immediately he wished he had not said that. It was a reminder that these unclean things spread plague, and it made the men nervous.
“What the hell…” The Barbarian shouted. The central Terrarch in the group under attack, white robed, head covered in a tall cowl, face masked in gold, had raised his hands. Flames licked around them, and yet the Terrarch was not consumed. His garments did not ignite. He reached out and touched the nearest animated corpse. Flames surrounded it, flickering a mixture of black and red and gold. The corpse tumbled backwards, limbs twitching, the blaze consuming it with mystical quickness. It shrivelled, blackened, turned to ash and began to flake away.
“The cleansing flame,” Sardec said, knowing only one type of Terrarch who could wield that power. “Forward, lads. Let’s not let the Inquisitor take all the glory.” That got the Foragers moving. None of them wanted to get on the bad side of an Inquisitor. For centuries the title had been a byword for terror among the humans.
They raced forward, bayonets fixed. The streets echoed with their battle cries as they hacked through the walking corpses.
Sardec flinched when he got to grips with the undead things. Their skin was grey and puffy, peeling away to reveal bone and tendon beneath. Strange witch-fires burned in their eyes. Maggots writhed in their rotting cheeks. Yellow teeth grinned from lipless mouths. Some wore tattered grave clothes, as ragged as their flesh. Others were naked. There were women and children. At least none of the deaders were Terrarchs. So far the plague of revenants appeared only to affect humans.
The creatures were slow but they were strong and they felt no pain. One reached for him with claw-like hands, nails long and sharp. Hunger burned in its eyes. It opened its mouth. No words emerged, only a hissing like a broken bellows. A draft of stinking air hit Sardec in the face, so corrupt that it made his stomach churn.
He slashed at the clutching hand with his hook, severing fingers, then placed his pistol against the thing’s chest and pulled the trigger. The force of the shot tumbled the revenant backwards. Sardec thrust his boot down on its throat, pinning it in place and shouted for one of the Foragers to smash the creature’s skull.
Ugly pock-marked little Toadface rushed forward and brought down his musket butt on the revenant’s head. An eye rolled from its socket, bits of brain oozing out. Toadface struck again and again, reducing the skull to mush. Still the thing kept moving. Sardec removed his boot. At least now it could not see, and had not even its previous rudimentary intelligence to guide it. Experience had shown that in a few minutes or hours it would lose all animation.
Flame erupted nearby. A wave of heat and the stink of burning flesh washed over Sardec. He looked around and found himself face to face with the cowled Terrarch he had seen earlier. The Inquisitor’s white robes were soiled with filth. Black blood and gobbets of flesh besmirched his gold mask. Flames danced around his hands. Looking closely Sardec could see they emerged from ancient jewelled gauntlets.
“Well met, Lieutenant,” the Inquisitor said in a voice that was rich and surprisingly good-humoured. “Your arrival is timely.”
As he spoke, he lunged forward, passing Sardec’s shoulder. A burst of heat told Sardec that the Inquisitor had dealt with a foe creeping up behind him. He returned the favour by grappling with the creature that made a grab for the newcomer. He had no sooner brought the creature down than the flame engulfed it. Sardec let go quickly, fearing to be burned. Somehow the flame did not singe him although he felt its heat.
The soldiers finished with blade and club. They looked as if they had been working in a slaughterhouse but they were victorious. A strange quiet fell over the street as the last of the undead went down. All eyes focused on the Inquisitor and his black garbed retinue.
“Things are as bad here as I was told,” said the Inquisitor. “The Shadow lies heavy on this place.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, sir,” said Sardec.
“My brethren and I are grateful to you for your assistance. The Light smiles on our mission.”
“I am glad we could help,” said Sardec.
“I am High Inquisitor Joran.”
“Sardec, Lieutenant, the Queen’s Seventh Infantry.”
The gold mask inclined itself forward. The flaming fingers steepled. “Then these would be the so-called Foragers.”
The statement chilled Sardec. The idea that his company had caught the attention of the Inquisition was not a pleasant one. Cold eyes, at odds with the mellow voice, fixed Sardec with their gaze. They reminded him of a hunting hawk staring at its prey.
“I believe you and I have some things to talk about, Lieutenant,” said the High Inquisitor. The cleansing flames had died away but the ancient runes on his gauntlets glowed with their own internal light.
Sardec said, “I would be delighted to escort you through the city. Halim can be quite dangerous. It’s not just the undead; there are bandits and rebels and highway robbers.”
The Inquisitor’s coach was nearby. Hungry folk had already stripped meat from the dead horses. The remainder of the animals had fled or been stolen. Trunks and other gear lay strewn all around.
“Someone around here has considerable presence of mind,” said Joran. He laughed as at a mildly humorous joke. “No one came to our aid but they found time to loot our possessions.”
“People are desperate and they have little love for Taloreans here,” said Sardec.
“No doubt you are correct. I would be very grateful if your men could help us. Those trunks contain valuable papers.”
“Of course,” said Sardec, turning to the Foragers. “You five gather up those chests and stow them away on the coach. Sergeant, take ten men and go to the Palace. Explain the situation and have them send more horses and a cavalry escort. I will help guard the Inquisitor.”
“At once, sir,” said Hef. There was no humour in the Sergeant’s manner now. The presence of the Inquisitor and his retinue daunted him. Sardec was pleased to note that Hef had the presence of mind to take Weasel and the Barbarian. Those two were the last people he would have wanted falling under Joran’s eye.
Several of the Inquisitor’s henchmen eyed the soldiers coldly, as if they expected them to try and make off with the sacred relics. Sardec knew the sort of Terrarchs they were likely to be; fanatics of the most intolerant kind. He was suddenly aware that Joran had moved up to him. The smell of incense and something else, perfumed oil perhaps, clung to those white robes.
“You are familiar with the Lady Asea,” Joran said. It did not sound like a question.
“I commanded her escort during her visit to Harven.”
“You were there when she made her daring escape from the city.”
Sardec nodded. He could still recall the eerie night flight out of the great seaport. He forced himself to meet the Inquisitor’s gaze. He was a loyal Terrarch of a proud and ancient family. He had nothing to fear from Joran.
“You are acquainted with the half-breed she has taken under her wing.”
“He used to be a private soldier in my company.”
“He has come a very long way in a very short time. He rescued Queen Kathea from the Serpent Tower and some say he killed her.”
“I do not believe that is what happened.”
“What do you believe happened?” Sardec felt as if he were standing on the brink of a very deep precipice, on very unstable ground. He needed time to think. He glanced significantly at the human soldiers standing all around.
“I believe this is neither the time nor place to discuss such matters.”
The Inquisitor’s voice was soft and friendly but there were chill undertones in it. “Then we shall talk about this again, when the time and place are right.”
The black uniformed servant led Sardec through the labyrinthine corridors of the Palace. He strode uneasily through the elegant corridors where he passed old oil paintings depicting famous scenes from Kharadrean history. His encounter with the Inquisitor had left him feeling watched and judged. Joran’s oblique questions had made him uncomfortably aware that something was going on and he felt that Asea should be warned.
He was not entirely sure how or why but a bond had grown between them. He was not bewitched by the Lady of the First as many of his fellow officers were, but he owed her the loyalty he would feel towards any comrade with whom he had shared hardship and danger. She had saved his life on several occasions and he had saved hers.
A number of soldiers stood guard; all men of the Seventh Infantry. The sorceress had been held in a position somewhere between house arrest and protective custody since just after the night Queen Kathea died.
The servant showed Sardec into the drawing room where Asea and Rik waited. He was at once struck by the contrast between them. Asea had not grown any less beautiful since he had last seen her. She was tall, stately, with luminous silver hair and the fine-featured, pointed eared beauty of the most ancient of Terrarch lines. Her features were at once calm and sensual. Her manner of dress had the elaborate complexity of the latest female fashions. She looked no older than Sardec although legend claimed she had lived for more than two millennia. She smiled as if genuinely glad to see him.
By contrast, the half-breed looked worse than ever. The expensive cut of his jacket and britches could not conceal the fact that he had lost weight, and he had never been fat to begin with. His features were gaunt and haunted which had the effect of emphasising the Terrarch half of his heritage. If only his ears had come to a full point he could easily have been mistaken for one. He had endured enough recently to make anyone look grim. Asea had only just managed to save him from being executed for the murder of Queen Kathea, and then only because she was the half-sister of Lord Azaar, the commanding officer of the Talorean Army in Halim.
What had happened in the Palace that night, Sardec wondered?
He had heard all the camp gossip and he still was not sure. Was it really possible that Lord Malkior, former Chancellor of Sardea had assassinated Kathea? If so why had he come himself, and not sent assassins? It made no sense; Malkior had a reputation of being something of a moderate among the nobles of the Dark Empire. There were things going on here that scared Sardec, strange currents of sorcery and politics swirled through the air.
He had seen some terrible things since he had begun accompanying Asea and he suspected that the Inquisitor was right, and that the Shadow was strong in this place.
“To what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?” Asea asked. Her voice was musical and as perfectly controlled as the rest of her. He wondered just how much of the warmth in it was real, and how much was manipulation. Like all of the First, Asea was a consummate actress.
Sardec gave a warning glance at the servant, and said, “I found that I missed your company. And I was worried about your safety.”
Asea gestured for the girl to withdraw. As the door closed, she smiled and said, “Why today more than any other day?”
“Because I have just come from escorting High Inquisitor Joran to the Palace, and he seemed unduly interested in your doings and those of your protege.”
Sardec did not miss the look of complicity that passed between the two of them. He was certain that there was unease there as well. Did they fear a charge of miscegenation? It has been a long time since one had been brought against a Terrarch but the law was still on the statutes. Sardec thought about Rena and suppressed a shudder. He had as much to fear from such an allegation as Asea, quite possibly more.
“He was asking about us?” Rik inquired. His accent still held traces of the guttersnipe he had once been. It would take a long time for Asea to polish that out of him. Were they really lovers, as everyone suspected? It was the easiest explanation of why they had spent so much time together but Sardec suspected something else, that she was teaching the half-breed sorcery, which might cost him his life if the Inquisition found out. They were not at all keen on humans learning magic. It was a known fact that those who did practise the Art fell all too easily to the Shadow.
“About you very specifically. I think he has come here to look into Queen Kathea’s death, and I would not be surprised if he bears a Royal Warrant.”
“He would be a fool if he came with anything less,” said Asea. “And that is one thing Joran is not.”
“You know him?”
“He and I have had dealings in the past. He is a Terrarch of some subtlety. By nature he sees plots everywhere. The Inquisition is a natural home for his sort.”
“These days, Milady, he may be right. Queen Kathea is dead after all. Our situation here in Kharadrea grows daily more precarious. With my own eyes I have witnessed Terrarchs of the ancient nobility working the darkest of sorcery.”
“I fear, Lieutenant, that you will witness much more of that before the end of this affair.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ancient evils stir in the East. Lord Malkior and Jaderac were not the only dark sorcerers to come out of those lands. The plague winds that have blown all winter are no accident. I have seen sorcery like this before, on Al’Terra, used by the followers of the Princes of Shadow.”
“You think someone has rediscovered that ancient magic?”
“Or someone has been taught it.”
“By the Shadow? Terrarchs? Here?”
“And what motive would they have?”
“Why have people always served the Princes of Shadow? Power, revenge, ambition. I saw a whole world fall once. Only ten thousand of us escaped.”
“And you think some agents of the Shadow came with us.”
“I am certain of it.”
“If you are right something must be done.”
“I have already written to Queen Arielle informing her of this. I believe we should march East.”
“That would be suicide,” said Sardec. “We do not have the manpower for an invasion of the Dark Empire now. It would take months to assemble such an army and we would have to strip our Western borders.”
Another one struck Sardec. “Do you think the High Inquisitor’s presence has anything to do with this?”
“Doubtless we will find out in due course.”
Sardec looked at Rik once again. His face was pale and his lips moved silently as if he were trying to form words in a language not meant for human tongues. Was he sick or going mad? Sardec had heard that this happened often to human sorcerers. He had been this way since they escaped from Harven. One thing seemed certain — it would be best if Asea kept him away from the Inquisitor.
“Are you all right?” Sardec asked. Rik’s eyes seemed to be focused in the middle distance. He gave the impression that his mind was not there at all. A moment later intelligence and sanity returned.
“I am fine,” he said. “I have been unwell but I am getting better now.”
“You should be more careful of your health, for all our sakes.” Sardec hoped that the two of them picked up on his meaning.
“Will you have something to drink?” Asea asked.
“No,” said Sardec. “I must return to my duties. As always, Milady, a pleasure.”
“This is very poor timing,” Asea said, once Sardec had gone.
Rik nodded. In the depths of his mind, the presences that had been there since he had eaten the soul of the alien Quan gibbered agreement. They had erupted when the Lieutenant had brought the news. Rik hoped that Sardec had not suspected the truth of what was going on. If he did, he would most likely report it to the Inquisition at once, and Rik would hardly have blamed him.
He had, after all, practised the darkest form of magic when he destroyed the vampiric Elder World demon, and he had taken its memories, and all the memories of those creatures whose souls it had devoured into himself. There were times when he felt that what he had done would drive him mad, if it had not already done so.
Asea looked disturbed. “You need to get yourself in hand. I do not think you could meet with the Inquisitor at the moment. He would believe you to be possessed.”
“And you think I am not?”
“I think you are suffering the after-effects of a complex piece of sorcery that was almost beyond your ability and that you are lucky to be alive and with your mind intact.”
Rik could not disagree with that. For a while there, things had improved, but, with the persistence of malarial fever, the attacks of madness returned. His dreams were haunted and sometimes fragments of those dreams broke into his waking hours.
There were times when he found himself remembering the Quan’s underwater home near Harven almost with fondness, when he recalled the strange rituals of the squid-faced aliens with something like understanding, when he found himself reaching out for the flows of magical energy around him with a knowledge he had never gained from his studies with Asea.
Worse were the times when he recalled the lives of the people the Quan had devoured. Sometimes he remembered being a sailor on the cold grey waters of the northern seas. He had flashes of his lungs filling with water as the Quan ate his soul. He woke unsure of whether he was alive. There were moments when he thought he was the one who had been devoured and lived only in the Quan’s dreams.
Sometimes he wished he had never left Sorrow, never met Asea, never become embroiled in the deadly intrigues that surrounded her. He might have been happier if he had not attempted to claim his Terrarch birthright and master magic.
He pushed the thoughts aside as worthless. He had made his decision and accepted Asea’s patronage and now he would have to find a way of living with the consequences.
“Rik, pay attention,” said the sorceress. He realised that he had missed a lot of what Asea was saying. “Your life depends on this. Perhaps mine does too.”
“I don’t see why?” he said coldly. “You are of the First. You are kin to the Queen and to General Azaar. I am sure you will find a way to survive.”
Her smile was cold and dazzling and not without a hint of humour. “Your faith is touching, but misplaced. We are at war now, and not just with the Sardeans. The Princes of Shadow reach out for this world, and that means the power of the Inquisition will grow. Soon no one will be beyond its reach. Believe me, I have lived through such times before. Everyone will come under suspicion. Soon we will be our own worst enemies. Such mistrust has always been the Shadow’s greatest weapon.”
Rik knew she spoke the truth about the danger. He was descended from a long line of servants of the Shadow, and that of itself was enough for the Inquisition to put him to the stake. He supposed it would be possible that they might do the same to Asea if they found out she had been sheltering him.
Under the circumstances it might be in her best interests to have him done away with. He had been a useful tool for her, but he might have outlived his usefulness.
“You have that calculating look in your eye,” she said. “What are you thinking?”
He considered his answer for a moment and then he told her.
She smiled again. “I know you find this hard to believe but you are far more useful to me alive than dead, and that’s leaving aside the fact that I would prefer that you not come to harm.”
She had a point. Like Malkior, his lost father, the Queen’s assassin, he was a Shadowblood, undetectable by normal magic, unstoppable by magical wards. With the sorcery she was teaching him, he was becoming an ever more deadly killer. And he had the ability to sense when other Shadowblood used their abilities near him. He was the perfect bodyguard against the deadliest assassins who had ever lived. And those assassins would be coming for her soon, if her fears proved correct.
He had every reason to want to keep her alive. She was one of the very few people, and the only Terrarch, who had ever actively tried to help him, who even cared what happened to him, and he was not about to turn on her. She was, in her own way, as honest with him as she was capable of being, and he appreciated that too, with the sort of appreciation that only came after a lifetime of being deceived.
And she was teaching him astonishing things, secrets of magecraft that he had no other way of acquiring and which he had to have, if he was going to survive, and that was a thing he fully intended to do, despite the presence of the voices in his mind and enemies all around him. He intended to see that Asea survived as well. He had failed Queen Kathea. He was not going to fail her.
“What shall we do?” he asked.
“There are potions I can prepare that will calm you, and help you mask the symptoms. They will take some time to acquire the ingredients and to brew. In the meantime, avoid High Inquisitor Joran.”
“Might it be better if I vanished for a while until you create the medicine?”
“Where would you go?”
“Halim is a big city. I am sure I can find a place to hide.”
“What would I tell the Inquisition?”
“That you do not know where I am, and that will be true until I contact you.”
“And how will you do that?”
“I have a talent for finding my way into places where I should not be. I might surprise you.”
“I would not want you to surprise me so much that Karim or I killed you.”
“I am sure that finding such a way is not beyond my wit.”
“I do not know, Rik. I think it would be best for you to remain in the palace for the moment. If you disappeared it would only draw attention to you and make the Inquisitor even more suspicious.”
There was a discreet knock on the door. On invitation, the servant entered. She bore a sealed letter on a silver tray. Asea automatically reached for it, inspected it and then raised an eyebrow.
“It’s addressed to you,” she said, handing it over to him.
Rik recognised the hand-writing at once. It was from Malkior’s daughter, an agent of the Dark Empire, his half-sister, a sorceress and a Shadowblood assassin, perhaps the most dangerous woman he had ever encountered.
He opened it and scanned the few brief lines within.
“It’s from Tamara,” he told Asea. “She wants to meet.”
Rik invoked the illumination spell. A faint ball of flame flickered within the crystal sphere Asea had given him. It was barely more than a witch light but enough to let his half-Terrarch eyes see the broken machinery and shattered glasswork around him.
Rik did not like this place. The last time he had been in this basement, he had found a vat full of undead soldiers. Now it smelled of acid and blood and death and fire. The voices in his head were uneasy too, as they should be, for if he died they lost their last desperate finger-hold on life as well.
Rik kept his back to the wall and checked the pistol. It was loaded with a truesilver bullet of the same type with which he had killed Malkior and he wondered whether he was going to have to do for the daughter as well. He would prefer not to. For all her viciousness, he had always rather liked Tamara, and the last time they had met, he thought they might have reached some sort of understanding.
He wished that he had time to find Weasel and the Barbarian and have them back him up. Then again the last time the three of them had gone up against Tamara things had not ended well. He felt uncomfortable standing in the cellar with spring mud on his boots and clinging to the cuffs of his trousers. The stairs were rickety and would not make a good escape route, and that was something he had learned early in life that you should always have. It would be easy enough to trap him here given enough men.
Why had he come, he asked himself again? He was still not entirely sure. Perhaps he was just past caring. He was tired and the Inquisition might find him at any moment and cart him off to be burned. And he was curious as to what Tamara wanted. And, if she expected him to be easy prey, she was in for a surprise. The last time they had met he had not possessed the skill in sorcery that he did now. Perhaps that would help.
Even as the thought crossed his mind, a tearing sensation ripped at his soul. A patch of shadow in the corner of the room clotted and hardened. A humanoid outline appeared in it, a shadow that no one had cast. In moments it took on three dimensions, bulged outwards and Tamara was standing there, a beautiful Terrarch girl, snub-nosed, bright big eyes alive with mischief. A blade glittered in her hand. There were runes in it, and he guessed that it was a thing of peculiar deadliness. He rested the barrel of the pistol in the crook of his arm. Not accidentally it pointed directly at her.
“I am surprised you came,” she said, a smile quirking her too-broad lips. If having the pistol sighted at her made her uncomfortable she gave no sign of it. She wore men’s clothing, dark and tight-fitting. He noticed there was no mud on her boots.
“No you are not. You knew I would come.”
“I suppose so.”
“What do you want?”
“Exactly what I said in my letter. I want to talk with you.”
“About your father?”
“Yes. Rumour has it that you encountered him recently.”
“And how is he?”
“Are you sure? People have thought that before but he always returned.”
“I killed him myself.”
She laughed in a way suggested that she did not believe him. There was also something about her expression that suggested that she might want to. “You killed him?”
“With a truesilver bullet just like the one in this pistol. Then Asea cut him into little pieces and buried his remains in lead lined caskets in five different places.”
She shook her head. Her expression was a little dazed. “I don’t believe you.”
“Believe what you choose. It does not alter the truth one little bit.”
“It’s not possible. He was a great sorcerer and a greater assassin. You are only a half-breed soldier.”
“He under-estimated me. You people have a habit of doing that.”
She cocked her head to one side and studied him for a long moment. “That I know. I have done it myself. Still it does not seem possible that he’s actually dead. He was one of the First. He had walked Al’Terra. He served…”
“He served the Princes of Shadow.”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
“He told me. He told me a lot of things before he died.”
“And why would he do that?”
“He was my father.”
She just looked at him, then she sheathed the blade and leaned against the workbench, arms folded across her chest.
“He always wanted a son. He told me that often enough. He did not think it was possible though.”
“Apparently it was. He killed my mother or had her killed before he found out about me.”
“So you have the power too?”
“I believe so.”
“Which would explain how you knew about my arrival. Only another Shadowblood would have known that and then only one with peculiar gifts.” She spoke slowly as if putting things together for the first time in her own mind. She glanced at the glowglobe. “And Asea has been teaching you, which explains why you are not afraid of me.”
“I am very much afraid of you, which is why I have this pistol trained on your belly. Please be very careful. A gut shot is a painful way to die and I would rather not see it happen to you.”
“That makes two of us.”
“I would appreciate it if you would make no sudden moves. I have bad memories of the last time the two of us fought.”
“It would seem you’ve come a long way since — unless you were only pretending then.”
He said nothing, not bothered if she wished to jump to the wrong conclusions.
“I can understand why Lady Asea has taken such an interest in you now. Did she ask you to kill me?”
“You mean the way you asked me to kill her.”
“She is the enemy of my nation and she was the enemy of my father.”
“She is not my enemy.”
“I can see that you believe that. Were you ever what you pretended to be?”
“Interested in killing her? No, not really.”
“Do you intend to try and kill me?”
“No. We talked about this before. It might be useful to both of us to have a friend on the other side.”
“Are you trying to recruit me?”
“No. I am just telling you what I think.”
“And you really expect me to take you up on that, after you killed my — our — father.”
“I am just letting you know the offer still stands.”
She slumped backwards and laughed again. It was an odd sound, half mirth, half sorrow. “I can’t actually believe that this time he won’t be coming back. He always seemed invincible.”
Rik could not disagree with that. One thing Malkior had not lacked was self-confidence. He had planned to use the entire human race as cattle if he got the chance. It was no small ambition.
“So the old monster is finally dead,” said Tamara. “And I am free of him after all these years.”
“If that’s what you want,” said Rik cautiously.
“He was hateful and he made me the same.”
This was not exactly the reaction he had been expecting.
“And what am I going to do about you?” she asked. “I doubt the Empress would recognise any claim of yours to his estates.”
Was that what she was worried about? Malkior must have been extremely wealthy. He had been one of the First and one of the most powerful nobles in the Dark Empire. If that was what she was concerned about, she could stop.
“I don’t want anything that belonged to him,” he said, and was surprised to find that he meant it. Not that it made much difference anyway. Tamara was right. The Sardeans would never accept a legal claim from someone like him. “It would appear that you are rich.”
She studied him closely. The appraisal in her gaze started to make him uncomfortable. “You got more from him than I think you know.”
“Forgive me if I seem ungrateful.”
“I think you inherited some of his personality as well as some of his gifts and his tastes. I noticed it during our last meeting. You have taken up thanatomancy, haven’t you?”
She arched an eyebrow.
“I killed a Quan. It was trying to eat my soul. Instead I ate its.”
She looked shocked and a little more respectful. “Then you have more native talent than most sorcerers.”
“So Lady Asea tells me.”
“She would know.” An uncomfortable silence filled the air between them. Rik wondered how he was going to get out of here without shooting her. He had no desire to turn his back on her as he went up the stairs.
“What will you do now?” he asked eventually.
“I believe I will return to Sardea and stake my claim on the estate before I am declared dead too.”
“There is a war on. You may find it difficult to travel.”
She gestured towards the shadows. “I am sure I will find a way.”
He was sure about that too. She was nothing if not competent.
“What about you?” she asked. “I hear there is an Inquisitor in Halim and he is interested in you.”
“I have heard that too.”
“Will you kill him?”
“If it proves necessary, I might.”
“I would advise you to run as far and as fast as you can. The Inquisition has great power and I doubt even you can kill all of them.”
“Your concern touches me.”
“It is genuine, believe it or not. I have always liked you.”
“People keep telling me that. It makes me suspicious.”
“No-one made you suspicious. You were born that way.”
There was a strange tension in the air. Rik wondered what it was. They seem to have exhausted whatever business was between them, but she seemed oddly reluctant to go.
“He is really dead?” she asked. There was no need to ask to whom she referred.
“Then I am finally free.”
“If that’s what his death means to you then yes.”
“I find myself not sure what to do now. I have lived in his shadow for so long.”
Rik thought of his own life, the dead mother he had never known, his abandonment, his life in the orphanage and as a soldier, his confrontations with Malkior. “We both have,” he said at last. “We’ve both lived in his shadow.”
“I will bid you farewell,” she said, and stepped back. The shadows extended to greet her, and he was aware of the sensation of reality tearing. A moment later the darkness folded in on itself and she was gone. He waited for a second to be sure that no attack was coming and then began to edge away towards the exit.
He wondered if he would ever see her again.
Briefly Tamara fell through a cold airless place in which alien things waited. She stepped from the shadows and into the small room she had taken overlooking the old necromantic lab. She took a deep breath, filling her lungs then let out a long sigh of relief.
A quick glance around told her that no-one waited in ambush. None of her wards had been disturbed.
She felt weak at the knees. She was not sure whether it was from emotional distress or the toll that shadow-walking always took from her. The greatest of efforts sent stumbling across the room to slump down in the single chair.
Elation, fear and relief fought a three way battle in her mind. Her father was dead. At long last the old monster was gone. She was free of him, and his schemes, free of the ancient evil he represented.
Carved ikons left by the previous occupants leered down at her mockingly, and she reminded herself just how false their promise of salvation was. This world was in the grip of the Shadow. Evil was the true lord of the universe and there was no escape from that. Her father might be gone, but there were others like him, and worse things waiting to take his place.
How odd, she thought, that one so deadly should meet his fate at the hands of a mere youth, one who had not possessed a thousandth of his knowledge. It seemed that Malkior had forgotten his own lessons in the end. He had never tired of telling her that even the most expert swordsman can be killed by a fool that gets lucky.
Rik was no fool though. He was calm and calculating and there was something quite chilling about him that had not been there only a few months ago. She supposed the human part of him that was responsible for that. He had their trick of changing very quickly, of growing and learning almost before your eyes. He had succeeded in frightening her and not many people had ever managed that.
Perhaps it had not been him but the things that looked out of his eyes. She had sensed them there, the Elder world demon and its victims. He had partaken of its forbidden knowledge and she wondered whether it would destroy him in the end.
It was such knowledge that had really destroyed her father. Malkior had become ever more erratic in recent years. No mind, human or Terrarch, was capable of devouring another one and remaining completely sane. There was no way to integrate so many conflicting memories. Even Terrarchs, whose vastly longer lives meant more memories than humans, could not do that, and humans went insane swiftly when they practised thanatomancy. It would be interesting to see which part of his heritage won out. Perhaps it would be the true test of whether Rik was human or Terrarch.
She forced herself to rise and walk over to the pack she had stowed with her travelling gear. Within it was a silver flask and within the flask was moonglow wine. She took off the stopper and drank some, letting the cool rich taste run over her tongue and down her throat until it settled, burning in her belly. A morsel of strength returned.
She returned to the chair, set the bottle beside her and the runic dagger on her lap. Malkior was dead, she thought. Her father was dead. And she was glad although it was a gladness alloyed with many other emotions.
She remembered him from when she was a child, watching her proudly as she spelled out the runes in her book, and telling her wonderful tales of the world the Terrarchs had lost and would one day have again. He had been bad to the bone even then, but she had not known it, and had merely looked at him with the eyes of a doting daughter.
She fumbled with the locket at her breast and opened it. Within, in opposite faces of the casing were two miniature portraits of her parents. The likenesses were good, showing their ageless Terrarch beauty.
He looked poised and confident, the soul of charm, and she was sure that there had been a time when her mother had loved him. It had most likely been finding out what he really was that had driven her mother mad in the end. Lady Alysa had married a monster and given birth to another and it had been one of her father’s pleasures at the end to torment her with this knowledge, when she was too sick to tell anyone, and even those servants who listened to her ravings had thought her mad. There was sadness in the features the miniature portrayed, as if even then her mother had known what was to come.
She remembered the kindly, beautiful woman of her early years and supposed she must have loved her too once before her father had turned her against Alysa with his subtle words, his silent disrespect, the things he did not say that were more damning than the things he did. Her mother had spent many years trapped in the huge echoing mansion on their enormous estate, cut off from her friends and family, surrounded by servants who were her fathers slaves, watched constantly even by her maids. For decades, she had been unable to think of her mother except with contempt. It had taken a long time for her to realise how much her father had encouraged her in it. He brooked no rivals in her affections.
Why had they married? Her mother had loved her father she knew and perhaps there had been a time when in his own twisted way, he had loved her. Perhaps that’s why he had kept her a virtual prisoner, taken the time to subject her to his most exquisite mental cruelties, returned home after his many affairs. Of course, there had been other reasons. His mother was the last survivor of an ancient line, immensely rich, inheritor of many magical treasures, and her father had been a collector of such things, as many powerful sorcerers were. Perhaps her mother had merely been another thing he had collected.
She looked down at the blade. It had come from her father’s trove, part of the dowry her mother had brought, a product of the ancient magical arts of Al’Terra. It had their exquisite beauty as well as their potency. It could slice through magical protections, slay demons at need. It was woven round with protective spells to shield its bearer against death magic.
Strange, her father had not died from a blade, but from a weapon that had not existed on the home world; a truesilver bullet fired from a weapon that most Terrarchs thought obscene, the bane of their age, the herald of the end of their dominion. A gun had ended Malkior’s life. It was a new weapon for a new age, an age in which humans were rising against their betters, and had the tools to work the overthrow of even the most powerful of sorcerers. With truesilver bullets they need have no fear of demons. Even the Shadowblood could fall before them.
Perhaps Rik, half-human, half-Terrarch, as comfortable with guns as with sorcery was the symbol of this new age, and of the bastard culture that would grow out of it. She thought of his mixture of arrogance and fear, and wondered what would become of him. Perhaps he would survive. Perhaps Asea would use him up and then discard him as she had done so many others. Perhaps he would fall to the Shadow, the first of many like him, who would become its agents in this world. Like Asea, the Shadow used whatever tools it found most useful.
Something irritated her eyes. Her face was wet. Her father was dead. He was dead and all the things she had wanted to say to him would remain forever unsaid, all the questions she had wanted to ask would never be answered. All the complex knot of emotions would never be untangled.
Thinking about her father and about the Shadow she felt oddly adrift. She had served both, but she realised now that she had really served her father, seeking always to please him, to gain his attention even when she had defied him. Until recently she had possessed no real knowledge of what the Shadow was like. She had thought she had known, but she had not, not in the way that he had.
Malkior had been one of the First. He had come through the gates from an older, purer world. He had experienced the Shadow first hand, had served it since childhood, had bowed before its glory willingly, had been touched by it and granted power. He had not thought of it as demonic. He had talked about it as liberation, of freedom from the tyranny of Adaana, of the old Angels who had held back their people for so long.
She had known such things only through him, his stories and his faith. He had been its prophet and its embodiment and now he was gone. There was nothing left for her to serve. She felt more loyalty to the Queen-Empress of Sardea than she did to the Shadow’s cause. Without the physical anchor of his person, the Shadow’s was merely a side on which she found herself by accident.
Doubts she had long suppressed beat black wings around her skull. In a way she was glad that her father was gone, his plans to use the Black Mirror and open a gate to Al’Terra unfulfilled. For all his certainty of their glory, she had found the idea of the Princes of Shadow manifesting in this world a frightening one. It was one thing to work towards such a goal in the long distant future. It was another to live with the knowledge that soon the world would be utterly and irrevocably changed. She was not like him. She had grown up in a world where everyone thought of the Princes as the embodiment of purest evil, and it had tainted her with a suspicion from which she could never entirely be free.
She was merely putting things off, she told herself. She really ought to be going. Her work here was done, and the longer she stayed the greater the danger to her would become. There was no guarantee that Rik would not report her to Asea or to the authorities, and with a High Inquisitor in the vicinity, things could become very dangerous very quickly.
She needed to get back to Sardea and report the failure of her father’s plan to the Queen Empress and to Malkior’s former associates.
She stayed slumped in the chair, sipping liquor from the flask until eventually, red-eyed from weeping, she fell asleep.
Rik waited behind the curtain in the alcove, hardly daring to breath. He kept very quiet and very still, two things at which he had a lot of practise. Through a slit in the drape he could see the plush leather covered chairs. Asea welcomed High Inquisitor Joran and bade him take a seat. It had not taken long for the High Inquisitor to come calling. He had barely been in Halim a day.
“This is a pleasure, Lord Joran,” Asea said. “It does my heart good to see you here. We shall soon need all the help we can get.”
“It is through the mercy of the Light that I am here. The way was long and beset with peril.”
“We live in troubled times.”
“You speak the truth.” A note of subtle irony sounded in the statement. Joran had a wonderful voice, and he used it with the skill of a virtuoso.
“You must tell me of your journey.”
“Winter is a bad time of the year for travelling- the mountain passes were closed. It was deemed inadvisable to sail through Harven so that meant landing at Westport and overlanding it. After that snow, bandits, poor food, abominable roads. I will not bore you with the sordid details.”
“You could not bore me.”
“I have read your letters to the Queen with great interest. It is one of the reasons I am here. Queen Arielle has asked me to look into the matters you refer to.”
I have read your letters to the Queen. There was an assurance of power, of familiarity with the monarch, a hint of confidences betrayed, of a grasp of the upper echelons of power in Joran’s voice. Rik was unsure as to why the Inquisitor had taken that line. He was as out of his depths here as a Terrarch would be in the rookeries of Sorrow.
“I am glad she takes you into her confidence as well. It reassures me that one so wise should have her ear.” Asea’s voice too held hints of other things. She had been the Queen’s confidante for much longer than Joran, or so she implied.
“You flatter me, Asea, although my vanity welcomes your words.”
Asea’s tone changed. Bonhomie evaporated. There was a clipped menace to her delivery. “Since you are privy to my private correspondence with Arielle, you know that I fear someone seeks to open a Gate to Al’Terra.”
Joran’s reply was as easy as his previous statements. “It is one reason why I am here. That is a matter of the utmost gravity…if a Gate has been opened then it heralds the end of the world as we know it.”
“And yet you said the Gate is only one of the reasons you are here.”
“You are correct. Her majesty is very disturbed by rumours concerning the death of her cousin, Queen Kathea. It almost beggars belief that Lord Malkior was the killer. He was a Terrarch of the old blood, one of the First. Hardly an assassin.”
“I believe we can be frank with each other, Inquisitor Joran. Lord Malkior was a follower of the Shadow.”
Rik suppressed a shudder. That information was not something he wanted revealed to the Inquisition. It might lead to questions about his own heritage.
“You are asking me to believe that one of the First, a high noble of the Terrarchy was a servant of the Princes of Shadow?” Joran’s tone was good-humoured but Rik heard the subtle mockery in it. He wondered whether it was real, or merely intended to goad Asea into saying more. He had known thief takers who used similar such techniques. Her response was dry.
“It has happened before.”
“Your order has accused others of being followers of Shadow on this world.”
“Indeed it has. I suspect a lot of those charges with trumped up for political reasons.”
“You seem remarkably cynical about such things for an Inquisitor.”
Joran sighed. “I have been a seeker after truth for a very long time, Milady. You and I are both aware of how these things work. Times were bad during the Conquest. Questionable things were done during the Schism as well.”
“You are saying you do not believe me?”
“That I did not say. I am merely saying it’s a disturbing thing to hear talk of things emerging from our darkest legends to walk in the light of day.”
“Such things have happened before.”
“I would prefer to believe, as some of my generation do, that the Shadow is a mere metaphor for the darkness in our souls.”
“You were not born on Al’Terra. You did not see the wars we fought.”
“I lack that privilege.”
“You may not lack it for long. If the Gate is opened.”
“As you have said, we can be frank with each other. One reason I am here is to find out if there was any reason for you spreading these disturbing tales, if you hoped to gain something from telling these things to the Queen.”
“What could I have to gain from it?”
“From our invading Sardea? Your animosity towards the Queen-Empress is well known.”
“As is Queen Arielle’s.”
“The fate of nations is rarely decided by one person’s likes or dislikes; rational calculations of self interest usually intervene.”
“One would like to believe so. I have seen it otherwise.”
“In your letter you hinted that you knew who killed Her Majesty’s mother.”
“Malkior did that.”
“Many people suspected your hand in that.”
A flat silence descended on the room. Joran was only saying what many people thought, but Rik guessed very few people had ever said it to her face. After a beat the Inquisitor continued. “It certainly lets you off the hook if it’s true.”
Asea did not reply and Joran was the first to break the silence that ensued.
“I am merely reporting what has been said. What happened to Malkior? I have heard rumours of his body being cut up and buried in separate pieces.”
Joran had certainly acquired a lot of information in the short time he was here. It might be a good idea to find out who the Inquisitor had talked with since his arrival. There were informers everywhere.
“Hanging, drawing and quartering is the usual fate of regicides.”
“But according to what you told the Queen, Malkior was already dead.”
“That does not alter the penalty.”
“True, and it would prevent any unfortunate attempts at resurrection or reanimation. I understand it was your acquaintance, the half-breed Rik who killed him.”
“Along with the Palace guard.”
“I would like to talk to the youth.”
“I am sure that can be arranged.”
“Let us hope so. I am keen to hear his side of the story. I have not summoned him yet for he is under your protection and I wanted to discuss matters with you first.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I would like to talk with him- soon.”
“You shall. He has nothing to hide.”
“We all have something to hide.”
“That statement includes yourself, Inquisitor.”
“As a member of the Inquisition I have a special dispensation for my sins. They are committed in the service of church and state. This is very fine wine by the way.”
“It comes from my cellar in Redtower.”
“I understand you have petitioned the Queen to be allowed to adopt this Rik into your House.”
Although she had told Rik she had done this, the Inquisitor’s words confirmed it. He felt a thrill pass through him. In this, as in other things, she appeared to be keeping her word.
“I trust the Queen has approved.”
“It is a most unusual request. He is a half-breed.”
“That is the case, but he is as gifted as many full Terrarchs. He has more raw talent for sorcery than anyone I have ever encountered, and it would be a dangerous thing to leave him untutored.”
“There is more than one way of dealing with that.” The menace was obvious in the Inquisitor’s voice.
“It would be a crime to waste such talent when it could be at the disposal of the realm.”
“Human sorcerers have proven very prone to corruption by the Shadow.”
“In this case, I believe the Terrarch side of his heritage will prove the stronger.”
“Have you any idea of the boy’s parentage?”
“The human mother is known. The father is not.”
“He was raised by humans?”
“An orphanage in Sorrow, and then a soldier of the Queen.” Rik was glad Asea had missed out the long period between when he fled the orphanage and took the Queen’s coin. He doubted Joran would be too thrilled to hear about his time as a thief on the streets of Sorrow. But all it would take would be a little digging for him to find out, and who knew where that would lead?
“He freed the unfortunate Queen Kathea from the Serpent Tower.”
“If she had lived she might have ennobled him herself.”
“It’s a pity she did not then, for that would have saved us some difficulties.”
“These are not tolerant times. There are factions are Court who would not look kindly on the ennobling of one with human blood. The Emerald faction is a power in the land now. I don’t have to tell you that.”
“If there is anything I can do to help smooth the path. I am not without friends or gold.”
“I would be pleased to talk with this Rik as soon as possible.”
“I will make sure he gets the message.”
“What do you think of Lieutenant Sardec?”
“He is a very conscientious young officer.”
“I understand he has a human lover. He fought a duel over her.”
“I have heard some such gossip. I can assure you it in no way impairs his efficiency.”
“He was in command of your bodyguard during your mission to Harven.”
“And before that, when I visited Deep Achenar.”
“That was a mission for which he should have been commended. As I understand it, you prevented Uran Ultar from being resurrected. The return of such a demon at this exact moment could have been very dangerous to our war effort.”
“I think it’s all part of a pattern.”
“I am inclined to agree. We sent people to Achenar. They found the bodies of the Ultari, and the Magisters detected the residual energies of the portal. I read the report. So did her majesty.”
“You have been busy.”
“Not as busy as you. We would like to know more about the disappearance of the Serpent Tower as well. Was it destroyed by sorcery?”
“Ilmarec destroyed it. He intended to use the Serpent Men’s ancient weapons against us. It was a plan that backfired to our advantage.”
“You’ve left quite a trail of devastation behind you this past year, Milady.”
“I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“Or the right place at the right time. One thing about this unfortunate train of events works in your favour. All of them have been to the advantage of Talorea. Ilmarec opposed our intervention here in Kharadrea. Uran Ultar’s followers could have tied down our army on the border. I understand there was some business with animated corpses in Halim’s main graveyard.”
Asea nodded. “There’s plenty of work for an Inquisitor here.”
“A dirty business that- done by Jaderac. Another Sardean.”
“Yes. Another Sardean.”
“That place seems infested with dark magicians,” Again there was that slight mocking note in his voice. “If you wanted to make a case for the invasion that would play well with the Temple, you could not have done better.”
“Surely you are not implying that I have fabricated all this?”
“No, dear lady, I am not, but you must understand this- we are both a long way from the Amber city, and many strange theories get thrown about there, by people who have not been on the spot, who would like to believe that you have some ulterior motive, who suspect you perhaps of being as political as themselves.”
“You are not like that, of course.”
“I am a simple servant of the Temple. I seek only to establish the truth of what is going on here.”
Asea laughed outright. “The function of the Inquisition has changed over the past few years.”
Joran joined in her mirth. “No. That is not the case. You know as well as I that the Inquisition has many levels and many functions. Some Inquisitors seek out heretics. Some correct the errors of our human subjects. Some, like myself, are concerned with the realities of politics and seeing that the Temple navigates those tricky shoals without foundering.”
“I have heard that you bear the gift of the cleansing flame.”
“That is another of my functions. In this life we are all called on to play many roles.”
“You have seen how it is here. The dead do not rest, and those that are not burned rise again.”
“You have some theory about why this is happening now?”
“Jaderac performed a dreadful ritual and unleashed strange powers. I think someone else has assayed that ritual on a far larger scale.”
“I have heard reports that the dead walk throughout Kharadrea. Surely no spell can be that powerful, not on this world at least.”
“Who can tell? All winter winds of corruption carried this plague from the East and those who die of it rise again to threaten us. I think someone there has mastered ancient necromancy. I think they are using such sorcery as the Princes of Shadow used.”
“Such magic is impossible.”
“Events have proved that to be untrue. If someone has opened a Gate there are ways of bleeding power from it. With such power, one could perform so powerful a spell.”
“That is not the only thing you could do. If you could open a Gate, you could bring the Princes of Shadow and their armies to our world.”
“I see you grasp the danger of our situation and why I am concerned and think the Queen should be too.”
“You suspect that the Sardeans may be behind this.”
There was an urgency in Joran’s voice now that was obvious even to Rik. For all his earlier questioning they seemed to have come to the point in the interview that held most interest for him. Rik shook his head. Perhaps the Inquisitor merely wanted Asea to think that, perhaps it was a feint designed to hide his true interests and intentions.
“Yes,” said Asea.
“Why do you think that?”
“Malkior was very powerful there, a former Chancellor. He was in a position to encourage the rot.”
“It always comes back to him with you, doesn’t it?”
“Perhaps because that is the way of things.”
“His death begs other questions.”
“I know. Who were his followers? Who will replace him as their leader? How great was his influence?”
“How high does the corruption go? He was the Empress Arachne’s lover.”
“I know that too.”
Rik thought he saw where this was going. If the Taloreans successfully invaded Sardea, there would be purges of all the people under discussion. This was a weapon that could be used to discredit the Queen Empress and all of Malkior’s party and be used to replace them. Tamara would not do well if the Taloreans won.
In many ways it did not really matter whether Malkior was a Shadowblood or not. He could see that it would suit the powers that be in Talorea to believe that he was. The truth was merely incidental to that. Perhaps Joran might prove a useful ally to Asea’s cause. He appeared to be all in favour of the invasion.
Unless, of course, all this talk was merely a method of making him look that way while he went about other business.
“And there’s one more thing about the undead plague,” Asea said. There was something in her tone that made Rik’s hackles rise.
“What’s that, Milady?” Joran asked.
“We must ask ourselves why someone is raising so many of the dead.”
“To tie down our forces, to demoralise us, to weaken our will.”
“I fear all of that and more.”
“There are spells to control the risen dead as well as animate them. Imagine what would happen if we find ourselves fighting against armies of the dead.”
“That is a chilling thought,” the Inquisitor said.
Rik had to agree.
The sun shone down brightly on the glasshouse gardens. So high were the walls, so dense were the plants that Rik could almost forget that there was a city starving to death outside. Corpses might be walking the streets and packs of feral dogs hunting starving children through the ruins but in the Palace gardens, peacocks strutted over a manicured lawn, dotted with specimens of plants drawn from all over the world.
Rik felt light headed and calm. Asea’s potion was doing its work. The voices were still, although he sensed their presence deep in his mind. It was difficult to keep a smile from his lips. All morning he had banged into things, and not noticed until he discovered the cuts and bruises later.
Asea walked beside him. They strolled into a maze of hedges that cut off the rest of garden from view, walked passed topiary dragons and wyrms and unicorns and bushes of sweetly smelling flowers. Overhead, a roof of crystal admitted the light.
Asea looked at him sidelong, measuring him and not liking what she saw. She glanced around and made sure no one was looking at them. “I think the dosage is too strong,” she said. “You are perhaps too susceptible.”
“You could make a fortune selling this stuff on the black market,” he said, finding the remark too funny not to giggle at.
“I already have a fortune, Rik. And the drug on which the potion is based is widely used by certain classes of Terrarch. Some prefer it to alcohol.”
“I can understand why.”
“It is addictive and dulls the wits and those you will need to have about you. Use the spell against poison I taught you and reduce the potency of the drug in your bloodstream. Not too much, but enough to prevent you lurching all over the place.”
Rik felt like protesting but knew it would be futile. He concentrated his mind and muttered the words of the incantation. Power surged through his veins, cleansing them. In moments, he felt less light headed and more in control. He also felt much less happy.
“That is better,” she said.
“I don’t feel any better.”
“I think you were feeling rather too good.”
“And it is your duty to keep me from feeling that way.”
“You are developing quite a sardonic manner, my boy.”
“I think your own may be rubbing off on me.”
“An interesting possibility.” She looked around. Spring was most definitely in the air. The sky was blue and clear. Birds sang. “I will be glad to get outside,” she said. “The Palace is starting to feel a little too much like a prison.”
“You have obviously never been in a prison.”
“Ah but I have, Rik. In a life as long as mine there are very few things you do not experience at least once.”
“You were obviously held in a better class of prison than the ones I have been in.”
“No doubt. But then I am a better class of person.”
“I have heard that some of the cellars have been converted into cells since the Inquisitor arrived. Not a few people seem to be going into them and not coming out.” He was serious now.
“My half-brother told me that Joran bore a warrant from the Queen sanctioning his activities. There has been too much dark sorcery lately for the Inquisition to be seen not to act.”
“I keep expecting them to come knocking on the door. It’s worse than waiting for the thief takers back in Sorrow.”
“It might be sensible not to recount your experiences with the thief-takers when you finally do meet the Inquisitor. He may not find them as charming as I do.”
“I’ll try and remember that. I am starting to wish they would come. At least the waiting would be over.”
“That is exactly the way they want you to feel, Rik. You must start thinking like a Terrarch. Learn patience. This is a game to them. They know you are not going anywhere. They think they have you trapped here.”
“I notice a lot of new servants in our part of the Palace.”
“Our chambers are under observation which is why we are having this little chat here.”
“Your sorcery prevents eavesdropping surely.”
“There are other means: wine glasses against walls, secret view points, bribed servants.”
“I have checked the rooms. We have taken all precautions.”
“And this is another one.”
“As you wish.”
“There’s no need to sound so surly.” It came to Rik, that beneath her usual assured manner, Asea actually was worried, and that gave him pause. If she was worried, he should be terrified. He did not enjoy the same level of political influence that she did.
Perhaps she was worried that the Inquisition might take him, and find out all manner of unpleasant things about her. As ever, he was amazed that she had not simply disposed of him. It was what he would have done in her place. He realised that his life might indeed be hanging by a thread here. One wrong word and…
“I am sorry,” he said. “I have never been good at waiting.”
“Life, you will find, consists of very little else, one way or another.”
“I believe you.”
“Now you are being too contrite. Do not worry so much Rik. I am not without influence at Court, and Azaar will support me through whatever might come, and for the moment, he is our commanding General.”
“How long will that last?”
“For the duration of the coming campaign, I hope. He is without a doubt the best General in the West.”
“From what you have told me, politics might still see him replaced.”
“It might, but I doubt it. Even the Emerald faction know that the fate of our world hangs on the coming clash. The flow of history for the next thousand years will be decided by whether Talorea or Sardea triumphs, and that is without taking into account the machinations of the Princes of Shadow.”
“I thought we were supposed to have put the era of the Inquisition behind us.”
“It is not like it once was, Rik. At least they have to make people disappear in the dark now, and they are required to have official sanction. There was a time when they could have simply plucked you off the street without consulting anything except their own desires.”
“And so the world progresses, eh?”
“And so the world does indeed progress. Despite all your youthful cynicism.”
“I heard you talking about the Gate in the East. Do you really think someone could open one?”
“I did once. Much as it pains me to admit it, I may not be unique among sorcerers.”
“What are the Gates?”
“They are ancient artefacts.”
“Did the Terrarchs make them?”
“No, the Angels did. They used them to travel from world to world. Once they linked thousands of planets or so the Dragon Angel Adaana once told me.”
He stared at her. Once again she was alluding to conversations with beings who were legends.
“They were made by Angels.”
“And yet you opened one.”
“They are devices, Rik, machines made by magic. If you understand how they work you can use them. You can open them and close them.”
“They were made by Angels.”
“You said that already, Rik, and please close your mouth. The slack-jawed look does not become you.
“It is simply that your statement astonishes me.”
“I can see how it might. But I can assure you that it is the case unless Adaana lied to me, and I doubt she did. Angels rarely speak anything but truth.”
“You closed the Gate.”
“To be more specific, I broke it. I did not want anyone being able to open it again after us.”
“And now you suspect that someone has opened one again.”
“I suspect someone is creating a new one. According to Adaana they took centuries to weave and grow. I did not think anyone else had that knowledge but apparently that was mere vanity on my part. The Princes of Shadow gained access to the knowledge of the Angels when they plundered their Temple-Houses. It was one of the reasons they rebelled in the first place.”
He simply stared at her. Perhaps it was the drugs that stupefied him but he suspected that it was the way she talked of matters of theology as if they were part of her personal affairs. She seemed abstracted, lost in thought.
“I did not think that there was enough power in this world to weave a gate, but if you had access to thanatomancy or rituals derived from it, you could conceivably make the seed and after that it would simply be a matter of shaping it. The trick is to create the fault into the Deep and link it to the Angel’s Roads.”
“You said that with access to a Gate, spells as potent as those on Al’Terra became possible.”
“Yes- power bleeds from the Deep through a Gate, like water flowing up from a spring. One who knows the correct rituals could tap it. For decades now the level of ambient magical energy has been rising. That’s when I had my initial suspicions. I ignored them at first because the level always fluctuates naturally. And I did not want to admit to the alternative. Foolishly, as it turns out.”
“You are saying that with access to such power a sorcerer could create this plague and animate the dead.”
“And they could open a way through to Al’Terra and let the Princes of Shadow come here.”
“It could already have happened.”
“I don’t think so. I would be able to sense the presence of a fully open Gate, so would you. So would anyone with a reasonably strong gift for sorcery. It would be as noticeable as the sun is in the sky to a man with eyes. I don’t think the Princes of Shadow are here yet, but I have been known to be wrong.”
“Let us hope you are. What now?”
“We wait for the Inquisitor to summon you and for the Queen to decide whether we march East.”
“How long will that take?”
“Messengers have already been dispatched. We await only her reply. I am guessing a week at the most. If the decision has not already been made.”
The invitation to visit Joran was waiting for Rik when they returned to their apartments. It was delivered by one of the High Inquisitor’s henchmen, verbally. It requested that he pay his respects to Joran at the seventh bell, an hour after sunset. The time seemed ominous, and it gave him some hours to brood before the meeting, which as Asea pointed out, was just what the Inquisitor intended.
In his mind, he ran through all the questions that might arise, ranging from the missing books back in Redtower, to the death of Queen Kathea, to his own Shadowblood heritage. He thought about what he would tell them.
It was best to stick as close to the truth as possible. He had shot Malkior with a truesilver bullet. He knew it was Malkior because he had met the Terrarch in Harven at a reception given by the Council there. By the time he arrived on the scene the Queen and most of her guard were already dead. He and the survivors had managed to take the Terrarch sorcerer down. It was not quite the truth but it was close enough.
He tried not to think about all the things that could go wrong. The Inquisitor might see the mark of the thanatomancer upon him, or already know about his dark deeds. You could never tell quite how much any Terrarch knew and the Inquisition had a legendary array of sources. Perhaps even as he sat here trying to read a book, Weasel and the Barbarian were screaming under the hot irons in the cells below.
He told himself not to be stupid but he could not keep such thoughts from his mind, and they upset the voices and made them whisper and that too made him uneasy. He rose from the chair and started pacing up and down the chamber. Asea looked at him sardonically then went back to her own reading. She could maintain her poise through the end of the world. He feared that he could not.
He wondered whether he should make a run for it, leave the Palace and disappear, try and bury himself in the slums until he could leave the city and make his way back to Sorrow.
If they knew anything about him though, the Inquisition would expect him to do that. He could not head for Harven, the traditional refuge of the runaway human. He knew exactly what sort of reception he would get there, after Asea’s daring escape from the Talorean Embassy.
It was a big world. He ought to be able to lose himself in it. He had some money. He had his weapons. He had the sorcery Asea had taught him. Might it not be better to take his chances? But running would simply confirm their suspicions and give them reason to come looking for him, and it was not certain that they knew anything yet.
Perhaps it would be better to talk with the Inquisitor, find out what he knew and then make a decision. Yes, he thought, and perhaps it might be fatal for him and his friends.
Perhaps it was Asea’s potion, perhaps it was his own moral weakness. He could not make up his mind. He had grown accustomed to the Palace, to Asea’s company, to being someone, and he found himself loath to simply abandon that for the life of a freelance thief and beggar.
He still had not come to a decision when the seventh bell sounded, and there was an ominous knock on the door.
Two tall white-robed Terrarchs, faces gold-masked, led Rik through the Palace corridors. Four burly black-robed humans accompanied them, and their scarred and pock-marked faces were not masked. Rik could see that their tongues had been torn out. They were mutes of the sort that most conservative Terrarchs still favoured as servants. He doubted they would be able to read or write, but no doubt they could slit a throat or pin down a screaming prisoner with the best of them.
The Terrarchs did not speak to Rik nor did he attempt to start a conversation with them. Soldiers and Palace servants looked away as he passed. Most put their heads down and moved on swiftly, as if he were carrying some contagious disease and they did not want any exposure to it. He could not blame them for that, but it made him feel suddenly alone, in the middle of a Palace filled with people. He forced a smile on to his face. He was simply going to have to rely on his own wits and inner resources and put his faith in the long arm of Asea’s influence.
They made their way into the part of the building that Joran had taken for his people, and began to head down stairs. Rik’s heart sank as they descended, and then rose again just as quickly when he saw they were merely going down a couple of floors and not heading for the cellars. He needed to get a better grip on his emotions, but it was difficult when all control over his circumstances appeared to have slipped from his grasp.
He recalled some of Asea’s words. A sorcerer must be able to control his own mind and his feelings. Often they are the only things that he will have control over, and mastery of the external world flows from mastery of the inner one. He tried to take them to heart as they approached the door of the Inquisitor’s chambers and one of his escorts gave a discrete coded knock.
“Enter,” said the Inquisitor within.
Joran wore no mask. He was dressed in the sort of tunic that the upper echelons of Terrarch society used for less formal meetings. It was white and trimmed with green, the traditional colour of Al’Terra. Discrete golden studs, cast in the shape of an eye, held the collar in place. A golden sash was wound round his waist.
The chamber was luxuriously furnished, and a number of books lined the shelves. A small table stood between two high backed chairs. On it were two glasses and a bottle of wine.
“Be seated,” said Joran pleasantly. Rik was immediately on guard. The High Inquisitor waved his henchmen away, leaving them alone in the room. Rik glanced around, wondering about hidden listeners, and guards. He did not doubt that there would be some. He sat down and once he had done so, the Inquisitor did the same.
Rik studied Joran. The Inquisitor was handsome in the lean, narrow-jawed manner of the Terrarchs. His eyes were very dark, his ears lobeless and finely pointed. His silver hair was cropped short in a manner that was not fashionable. His features were very pale, which Rik assumed came from constantly wearing his mask.
“I have heard a lot about you,” said Joran. His voice was pleasant, his manner agreeable. At this moment, it was hard to imagine someone who sounded less like an Inquisitor, which made Rik even more tense. Joran noticed.
“Relax. We are not ogres. I am not going to put you to the Test of Iron and Fire.”
“I am very glad to hear it,” said Rik, not wanting to say anything, but finding that there was something about the Inquisitor’s manner that made him want to babble. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. This too did not go unnoticed.
“Your patron is very powerful, and she has petitioned the Queen to have you adopted into her House. I am here to ascertain whether you are worthy of such an honour.”
Rik very seriously doubted that this was the only reason why Joran was talking to him, but it hardly seemed diplomatic to point this out.
“I appreciate you coming all this way,” he said, unable to keep the sarcasm from his voice. Joran chose to ignore it.
“It is very unusual for a half-breed to be adopted into the ranks of one of our oldest clans. In fact, I cannot think of a single example of it. The adoption laws were meant for full-blooded Terrarchs. The Lady Asea must think very highly of you.”
“I’m afraid you will have to ask her about that.” There was something lulling about the Inquisitor’s gentle tones. Rik found himself echoing his manner. Was there some sorcery at work here, or some narcotic incense in the air? If there was he could not identify it, and this did not seem like the time for cleansing ritual sorcery.
“I have and she does.”
“I am grateful for her kind words.”
“As is only proper. Her attention is a great honour. She is one of the First, and one of the greatest of all Terrarchs. I have long been an admirer of hers.”
I’ll bet you have, thought Rik. Sincere as Joran sounded, Rik did not believe him for a second. He could not help but see the Inquisitor as an enemy, and that made him doubt anything Joran said.
“Have you any idea of your parentage?” Joran asked.
“None,” said Rik. “I was brought up in Temple Orphanage in Sorrow.”
“From which you vanished aged about eight or nine years old.”
So he knew about that. Rik felt the jaws of the trap beginning to close. “I left.”
“You left?” There was a certain amount of amusement in Joran’s voice. “You simply walked out.”
“I was not happy there.”
“What made you unhappy?”
Rik shrugged. “Discipline. I did not like being made to learn to read and write. I did not like the masters, or the work they made us do.” It was hard to keep the bitterness from his voice even now.
“A great many people would have been grateful for such an education. You were being taught an uncommon skill, one that would have fitted you for gainful employment.”
“Alas I did not appreciate that at the time. And by the time I had found out how hard life was on the streets, I could not go back. I knew they would not take me.”
Joran appeared sympathetic. “How then did you survive?”
“Begging, and scavenging.”
“Until you went for a soldier.”
“You joined the Seventh when you were fifteen. That means you must have spent a considerable time on the streets.”
“Many would not have survived that.”
“I was lucky.”
“You certainly seem to be, to have made your way from the streets of Sorrow, to the corridors of this Palace. I don’t think anyone could deny you are very lucky.”
“I am aware of it.”
“Your military record was not so distinguished, at least to begin with. I notice you were flogged, at the order of Lieutenant Sardec.”
“You have obviously read my record. I’m afraid it shows I was never good at taking discipline.”
“Yes, it does. At the same time, I can see that you were commended for bravery on a number of occasions, and were selected for the Foragers from the line company. That shows your commanders must have thought you a superior soldier.”
What it really showed was that Weasel and the Quartermaster considered him a superior thief, and had a use for his talents. They had seen to it he was transferred. If the Inquisitor did not know that, Rik was not going to tell him. “Again, you would have to ask them.”
“I already have. They agree. And you have since distinguished yourself in a number of ways.”
“I have done my best to serve the Queen.”
“Tell me about Achenar.”
Rik told him about the buried city of the ancients, and the Spider-Demons that inhabited it. He found himself shivering as he recollected the dank depths and the sinister things that scuttled there. He told him about the summoning of Uran Ultar and the way Sardec lost his hand, and how he himself had shot the Prophet Zarahel. Joran was a good listener. He concentrated on Rik’s words most flatteringly, and when he finished said, “So far your every word accords with what others have told me.” There was a slight note of insinuation in his voice.
Before he could stop himself Rik said, “And why not? It’s the truth.”
“I never said differently. I find the whole thing fascinating. So it was your deeds in Achenar that brought you to the Lady Asea’s attention.”
“I believe so. I had never met her before then.”
“Indeed. And she certainly chose to place great trust in you. I mean she selected you to infiltrate the Serpent Tower and rescue Queen Kathea.”
“I volunteered,” said Rik, a little too quickly for his own liking. It was a lie too. Asea had given him no choice in the matter.
“Why did she do that?” There was a cat-like quality to the Inquisitor’s manner now, as if he were coming to the part that really interested him, and where he expected Rik to trip himself up.
“Someone had to do it.”
“And she chose you. To sneak into one of the best protected fortresses in the world, wrapped round with charms woven by an ancient race, and bound to the service of one of the greatest Terrarch wizards. That was quite a feat.”
“She provided me with counter-magic.”
“And we both know that Lady Asea is the greatest of all Terrarch sorcerers.” There was a note of sardonic mockery in Joran’s voice now, as if he knew something that Rik did not, and was simply waiting for the contradictions to emerge.
He knows nothing, Rik told himself. He’s simply insinuating things and hoping you’ll make a mistake.
“I am in no position to judge that.”
“She has been teaching you magic. She told me that.” Rik shrugged, not wanting to say anything incriminating. He was really starting to dislike this one-sided game, where all the cards were stacked in Joran’s favour. Joran made a deprecating gesture with his right hand and said, “If you are a Terrarch that would not be a crime.”
“And we are here to decide whether I am a Terrarch, are we not?”
“Amongst other things. How did you get into the Serpent Tower?”
“In a cart, hidden among supplies.”
“And that was before the Tower vanished.”
“You know it was.”
“And yet even after the Tower vanished, you managed to escape along with the Queen. That is quite a feat.”
“We used an ancient escape device.” Joran raised an eyebrow. Rik understood now why the Inquisitor was not wearing a mask. His features were very expressive, and at this moment they expressed mocking disbelief.
“It was fortunate you knew how to do that?”
“I was told how to use it.”
“No, by a Serpent Man whom Ilmarec had enslaved.”
“Why did he do that?”
“He hated Ilmarec and wanted revenge.”
“How did Ilmarec make the Tower vanish?”
“You would have to ask him.”
“I would love to. Sadly he is not available for questioning. Witnesses claim the entire tower rose into the sky.”
“That it did.”
“Asea was attacked by a Nerghul while you were in Morven.”
“Yes, she was.”
“Do you know who sent it?”
“Why should I?”
“Perhaps she mentioned her suspicions to you. It is the product of the darkest sort of necromancy.”
“I am willing to believe that.”
“Very kind of you to say so.” For the first time a hint of annoyance appeared in Joran’s voice, and with it a measure of threat. Rik wondered if he was going to call for his henchmen and order him dragged off to the cellars.
If that were the case, Joran himself would be dead in a very few heartbeats. As soon as he made the decision, Rik relaxed. He was committed to a course of action now. He was not powerless; whatever happened here he would share his suffering with this arrogant fop who had under-estimated him.
Joran’s head tilted to one side as if he had noticed the change come over Rik. Perhaps he had. The Inquisitor probably had several centuries of experience interrogating humans. He pushed his chair back a little, as if he was the one who felt threatened. He took a deep breath and steepled his fingers, the very picture of a Terrarch in control of himself and the situation. Rik wondered what magic Joran knew and whether it could protect him. He could not help but feel that the Inquisitor had made a mistake by agreeing to talk to him alone. Perhaps Joran had begun to realise it too.
“Yes,” said Joran, after a long pause. “The darkest sort of necromancy, a sort they are most familiar with in Sardea.”
“I have never been there.”
“And yet you know the Lady Tamara.” Shock surged through Rik. How did the Inquisitor know about that? He kept silent, staring at Joran, waiting for some cue. Joran’s smile widened a fraction. He gazed at a point somewhere over Rik’s shoulder. It was all Rik could do to keep from turning his head to see if someone was sneaking up behind him. He did not want to take his eyes of the Inquisitor though.
“You talked to her in secret at the House of Sardontine.” Rik felt almost like laughing in spite of the trap opening at his feet. He had feared the Inquisitor would accuse him of many things, but being a Sardean spy was not one of them.
“Who told you that?”
“The Inquisition has eyes and ears everywhere. You were seen to disappear into Lady Sardontine’s chambers. Most people assume you were having a tryst with the Lady herself. I have reason to think that you were consorting with one of the Dark Empire’s most effective agents.”
Joran smiled. “Does Lady Asea know about that?”
“Well?” asked Joran. “Does Asea know?”
“Does it matter?”
“It might. If, for instance, she has been dealing with the Sardeans and you were merely her agent, then perhaps you could save yourself by telling us the truth.”
“Is that how it goes?”
“I don’t know. Enlighten me.”
“Asea has not been dealing with the Sardeans.”
“Yet she met with Malkior in Harven. We know this. So did you, as a matter of fact.”
Was Joran merely fishing? What did he really know? “I met him at a ball given by the Harven Council of Merchants.
“Of course, what else did you think I meant?”
“Nothing. I was merely stating a fact. If by having contact with the Sardeans, you mean meeting someone at a ball, I am sure many other people must qualify for that as well.”
“You are not in any position to get clever with me, youth. Let me spell things out- in Morven, you met with Tamara and Jaderac. So did Asea. In Harven you met with Tamara’s father, Lord Malkior. Here in Halim you personally met with Tamara again. Shortly after all of these events, Queen Kathea was assassinated, by Lord Malkior, who it is claimed you then killed. Have I summarised events correctly?”
“You can see that it would not take much effort on any fair minded person’s part to put a somewhat sinister interpretation on these events.”
“I can think of other interpretations, such as the truth.”
“Ah, the truth. At long last we get to it. So tell me what is the truth of these matters?”
“Tamara and Jaderac were already at Morven. They had business with Ilmarec, were trying to win him over to the Sardean cause. They were not then the enemy. We were not at war with Sardea.”
“That has changed. What makes you think Malkior killed Kathea?”
He told me so, Rik wanted to say, but common sense kept him polite. “He was there. He had blood on him. He boasted of what he did.”
“To you. There are no other witnesses.”
“I am surprised that you cannot produce some. You seem to have them for everything else.”
“I am not sure I like your tone.”
“And I am not sure that I like yours. Perhaps we can both do our best to be polite under the circumstances.” Rik wondered if the Inquisitor was really as shocked as he looked. It was possible he was not used to being talked to in this fashion.
“Your patron is very powerful, and her influence shields you to a certain extent, but it is unwise to make me angry.”
Rik knew that was undoubtedly the case. He bit back a hasty retort and spread his hands apologetically. “I do not like being accused of being a Sardean spy. All my life I have been a loyal subject of the Queen. I swore an oath to serve her as a soldier.”
He sounded quite sincere, even to his own ears, and he suspected it was really the case. He was loyal to Asea and the army, and he supposed when push came to shove he was loyal to Talorea as well. If humans had to live under Terrarch rule then better there than Sardea, that was for sure.
Joran pushed his advantage. “What did you talk to Tamara about?”
“She wanted me to kill Asea. She offered me quite a lot of money to do so.”
“You admit you talked with an agent of a foreign power about assassinating a high noble of the realm.”
“It seemed like the best way of finding out what she wanted. As your spies have no doubt informed you, Lady Asea is still alive.”
“You are starting to be insolent again, young man.” Joran stressed the word man as if it were an insult. Rik paused and took a deep breath, calming himself, unwilling to be provoked further, to cede the advantage in this interrogation.
“I resent the insinuation that I might actually wish to do harm to my patron, the one who shields me, as you have pointed out, from your wrath.”
“Does Asea know of your discussions with Tamara?”
“Of course- who do you think told me to go ahead with the meeting?” That was something a Terrarch would have no trouble believing. Humans were notoriously incapable of independent thought as far as they were concerned.
“So you are saying that Lady Asea ordered you to make contact with an agent of a foreign power.”
“For purposes of finding out what that agent wanted.”
Joran looked at him. “How much did Tamara offer you to kill Asea?”
“As much as I was prepared to ask for. She told me the Queen-Empress herself would not be ungrateful.”
“Were you tempted?”
“I have no sympathy with the Sardean cause and would do nothing to further it.”
“That is not what I asked.”
“I was not tempted. Anyone can make promises. Asea has done more than talk.”
“I could have you burned at the stake simply for talking to Tamara. You know that?”
This was the crux of the matter, Rik thought. “You could have my life for many things. We both know that. You are an Inquisitor. I am a human.”
“No, youth, you are not. You are a Terrarch and must be tried as such. I have made my decision on that at least.”
Rik was taken off balance by this sudden switch, as he suspected the Inquisitor wanted him to be. Joran smiled. “Do not worry. You are not beyond my reach. If I decide you are guilty of treason, your action will stain a Terrarch house. Lady Asea’s actions have consequences for others beside you.”
“I expect she knows that.”
“Yes. I expect she does. You are free to go.”
“Inquisitor Joran thinks he’s being subtle,” said Asea. She sat by the fire, a book of ancient sorcery open on her lap.
“In what way?”
“He is making it very clear to all that you are my creature, Rik. I petitioned the Queen to make it so. Any disgrace that befalls you will be associated with me. He is forcing me to protect you in order to protect myself and my House. He thinks it will constrain my ability to manoeuvre.”
“Yes. The process has already begun. I made the petition before Kathea was killed when you were still the hero of the hour. Now Kathea is dead and suspicion falls on you, and by implication on me. Recognising you as my ward emphasises this. There are many ways he could build a case against me, if that is what he wishes.”
“Do you think he does?”
“You have a lot to learn about politics.”
“Tell me something I do not know, Milady.”
“I am a power in the land, Rik. There are many beholden to me for favours, and some think I have influence on the Queen herself. Perhaps once I did.”
“I do not follow.”
“Inquisitor Joran is a very ambitious fellow. He is looking for leverage on me to further his own aims. I have no doubt that at some point down the road, some well prepared case will be shown to me, and I will be asked to do something for him in return for getting it dropped. It will probably be done in such a way that it will be easier to buy him off than to fight it.”
“No, Rik. It’s politics.”
“What if he is sincere? What if he really decides he wants to bring you down?”
Asea laughed. “Others have tried in the past, Rik. I am still here.”
Rik hoped she was not the one being over-confident now.
“I take it you’ve heard the news?” said Jazeray, sticking his sleek head round the office door.
Sardec tore his attention from the minutia of the supply lists: provisions, bullets, powder, all the myriad things that had to be accounted for with quartermaster’s requisitions, small foolscap boats floating down the endless river of paperwork.
“We’re getting ready to move out?”
“So soon in the season? Where are we going? Home?”
“We are not so lucky. It looks like we’re heading East. Scouts have just come in. Seems the Imperials can’t wait to get to grips with us. Their armies are already rolling over the border.”
“The General believes it, and that’s what counts. The official letters of dispatch go out this afternoon but I thought you would appreciate getting the word as quickly as possible.”
“Any idea about numbers? Of the Imperials, I mean.”
“They say tens of thousands of thralls.”
“They are not afraid of the plague then?”
“Maybe they know something we don’t.” Sardec had his suspicions about this ever since the Foragers had disrupted Jaderac’s ritual. The Sardeans were prepared to use any amount of dark sorcery to achieve their aims. It looked like it was going to be a difficult war, with plague and famine sweeping the land.
He supposed it had not been so different in his father’s day, save for the fact that then the enemy had not been other Terrarchs. During the conquest, the Exalted had presented a united front against the world. Now they fought proxy wars against each other through their human legions. It would only be a matter of time before it led to disaster.
Rulers were supposed to provide stability, certainty, prosperity. If they could not, loss of faith and rebellion inevitably followed. Terrarchs were supposed to be wiser than humans, able to take the long view, not be led astray by the clamour of mobs. His father had claimed that they were shepherds of their human charges, that they had a responsibility to them. It was only recently that Sardec had come to understand what he had meant and in some ways to share his feelings.
Jazeray said, “You’re looking thoughtful. I can tell by the blankness in your eyes. It reflects the emptiness in your skull.”
“I fear you judge me by yourself. I suppose it’s inevitable. We can only use our own experience as a guide.”
Jazeray laughed. “That sounded suspiciously like banter. You seem to be losing that famous stiffness of yours. Anyway, I had better go and let my Sergeant know what’s happening. Might as well have the troops ready for the off.”
“Your Sergeant knew about it before you did,” said Sardec.
“It never hurts to let them know we’re not completely in the dark.”
“Let me just sign these reports and I’ll join you.”
“We’re going where?” The Barbarian shouted. It was bloody typical. He had just got himself settled in this nice comfortable billet with a couple of jolly fat-bottomed whores and a decent supply of grog and tobacco and the army had to go and spoil it. It was enough to make a man sick. There were days when he really regretted leaving Segard, and this was one of them.
“We’re going East. Best get used to it,” said Weasel, looking as relaxed as he always did. He looked around the room where a dozen of the Foragers lay sprawled on their bedrolls. “Sergeant Hef asked me to spread the word. Seems like the Imperial hordes have crossed the border and are hot for blood.”
“Wankers,” said the Barbarian. “It’s bloody typical- I just got myself settled into a nice comfortable…”
“I know, I know,” said Weasel, looking like he’d heard all of this a thousand times before, intolerant bastard that he was. “Two or is it three plump lasses and a tavern with a good fire and a nice line in roasted rat, and now the army has got to go and spoil it all by giving us our marching orders. Who could have seen that coming?”
For a lanky thin bastard, Weasel did a pretty good impression of the Barbarian’s voice and manner or at least the other’s thought he did. They all laughed. The Barbarian glared around the room just to let them know he was not to be mocked, at least not by anybody but Weasel. They all looked away, abashed by his glare. They knew he could take any six of them, even though most of them were half his age. Actually he could take any ten of them on a good day and the way he felt now…
“You think we’ll be fighting any more dead men?” Toadface asked. Like all of the Foragers, he had grown heartily sick of the walking corpses. The Barbarian did not blame them. In his homeland. bodies remained decently in the ground when buried, and there was none of the need for burning you got in these devil-infested southern lands.
Weasel spread his huge long fingered hands and shrugged, pantomiming a total lack of knowledge.
Handsome Jan stopped admiring his profile in his shard of mirror long enough to say, “It seems like we’ve doing nothing else but deal with bloody sorcery since we crossed the Kharadrean border.”
“Since before that,” said Toadface, licking his lips with his long tongue. “Since the mountains and Achenar.”
The words filled the room with silence. None of them liked to remember that evil place and the Elder World demons that had filled it. They had all of them lost a bunch of friends to the spiders, and the Barbarian had come damn near to losing his life. He still carried the scars from where those huge claws had bitten into his flesh and it was not like he didn’t already have enough scars.
“I’m guessing we’ll see a deal more dark sorcery before this campaign is out,” said Weasel, always one to delight in bringing bad news. “The Sardeans are famous for it.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” said Toadface. “Like that bastard Jaderac up there in the graveyard, and that Nerghul thing that almost killed us all back in Morven. There are times when I think this whole bloody company is cursed.”
“Well, at least we’ve got the Inquisitor with us,” said Handsome Jan. “That fire of his put paid to the shadow-spawn.”
“I put paid to them with my blade,” said the Barbarian.
“Funny, that’s not how I remember it,” said Weasel.
“Well, I did my part, which is more than some here can say.” The Barbarian glared around, daring anyone to gainsay him, and as usual no one did.
“When do we move out?” Toadface asked.
“Day after tomorrow,” said Handsome Jan.
“No way,” said Weasel. “It’ll take weeks to get the provisions ready, and for the Terrarchs to make up their minds as to what to do.”
“Maybe the Sardeans will be here before then,” said Handsome Jan dubiously.
“Only if they come on dragon-back,” said Weasel. “It’s scores of leagues to the Eastern border, and the roads will be muddy as hell with the spring rains.”
“You don’t think they have enough dragons to move their entire army, do you?” the Barbarian asked. He didn’t mind fighting many things and he feared nothing, but the concept of roughhousing it with a dragon gave him pause.
“No. They’ll all be hibernating anyway, if our own are anything to go by.”
“Reckon there’ll be much plunder?” Handsome Jan asked.
Weasel shook his head. “Imperials will grab any they find on the way in, and Eastern Kharadrea is as poor as an honest magistrate anyway.”
“If the Imperials do have anything we can always take it from them,” said the Barbarian. He did not like to think that they might have to fight a battle without any prospect of loot. It was one of the few things that made a soldier’s life worthwhile.
“Nice that somebody is looking on the bright side,” said Weasel. “Now if I have answered all your questions, I am going to go and get a drink.”
“Smartest thing you’ve said all evening,” said the Barbarian. “I think I’ll join you.”
As ever Rena’s lush human beauty astonished Sardec. She looked lovely in the new green dress she had bought in the market. It had probably once belonged to some rich merchant’s wife. There were a lot of them selling clothing and jewellery to raise money for food on the black market. Times were hard all over.
She twirled around, raising the hem of the skirt slightly with her hands so that it swirled around with her. Her ankles were revealed, an effect which he found surprisingly erotic after all this time. He forced himself to clear such thoughts from his mind. This conversation was going to be hard enough as it was.
“What do you think?” she asked, a smile lighting her face.
“It looks fine, very nice.” Something in his tone must have told her something was wrong.
“What is it?” she asked.
“We got our marching orders today,” said Sardec, making his voice as grave as he could. “The Imperials are over the border. We are going to meet them.”
Her smile vanished and she slumped down on the bed. Her hands clutched the quilt crumpling it. “How long till we go?”
“I do not want you to go,” he said, fighting to keep his voice steady.
“You do not want me?”
“It will be dangerous. There will be very little food. There is plague in the East, far worse than here.”
“I want to go with you. Don’t you want me to come?”
“Aren’t you listening, woman?” he said, exasperation and concern making his voice rougher than he would have wanted it to sound. “I said it will be dangerous.”
“I don’t care how dangerous it is.”
“I do. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“But you might be hurt, killed even.”
“I am a soldier of the Queen. It is my job.”
“And I am a whore. It is my job to follow the army.”
“You are not a whore to me,” he said, unable to say what she really was to him. If truth be told there was no future to their relationship. She was a human, he was a Terrarch. There could be no marriage. Even putting aside all the problems of birth and class, there was the fact that he might live a thousand years if he did not fall in battle. She would be lucky to live past forty, the way the world was now.
“I want to go with you,” she said.
“I can’t allow you to do that,” he said. “If anything happened to you…”
“What?” There was imperiousness to her tone that no human should ever use to a Terrarch. He ignored it, trapped by his inability to express how he really felt, to take the risk of saying what she meant to him, of putting himself in her power, of risking ridicule not from the world, but from this one particular human being.
“I just do not want anything to happen to you,” he said lamely. He forced business-like briskness into his tone. “There is gold in the purse on the dresser, and script that can be drawn on any bank.”
“So it does come down to money. I am to be paid off,” she said unreasonably.
“I just want to make sure you are all right,” he said. “That you can pay for safe passage back to Talorea when the passes are open, and that you will have enough to live on once you get there.”
“This is cruel,” she said. He looked at her, not quite sure what she meant.
“I do not mean to be.”
She stared at him, meeting his gaze in a way that none of the soldiers under his command ever could. “No, I can see that you do not,” she said softly. “You just do not understand at all.”
“What you mean to me. What has happened between us. What you’ve done to my life.”
He stepped back a little, not wanting to face what she was saying, not really understanding what she meant anyway. She was a human, after all. He was a Terrarch. What claim could she possibly feel she had on him? Even as that thought crossed his mind, he realised that she did have one, based on the simple fact that he did care about what happened to her, more than he did for anyone else in the world.
He wanted to tell her that, but that would lead to other things, to her insisting that she come with him, on a march there was every chance that none of them would come back from. The Queen’s army were outnumbered, ill-equipped and facing an enemy that had no scruples about using the darkest of sorcery. Since Kathea’s death, they lacked local allies and many of the locals would rally to Khaldarus’s cause and fight for the Dark Empire simply because he was the only local claimant for the throne. And he’d heard other rumours, that if they won they were to continue marching on into the East, to invade Sardea itself, which would be suicidal.
If he reached out to her now, he would be sentencing her to death, and he did not want to do that; more than anything else in the world, he wanted to avoid it. “You cannot come with me. I forbid it.”
“You do not own me. This is not the Dark Empire. Not yet. You cannot forbid me to do anything.”
The defiance in her tone fanned his own anger. He wrenched his feelings back under control. He was not going to argue with a human. He was not going to raise his voice to her. “Then I ask you not to do it.”
“Why not?” he shouted. “What is so bloody difficult about it.”
“I can’t go back, not to Redtower, not to Mama Horne’s, not after being here with you.”
“I will come back for you. I will find you.”
“I have heard that before.”
It was not the right thing for her to say. Sardec did not like to think about her other lovers, the human ones, the ones who paid. He did not like to think that she compared him to them.
“If I say a thing, I mean it.”
“I will not go. I will not take your money. I will follow the army.”
“No you will not.” Once again he was shouting, and the shameful realisation that other Terrarchs might hear him goaded him to fury.
“Yes I will.”
“I am leaving,” he said, stalking to the door, determined to regain his composure.
She was gone when he got back. His money was still there.
From the saddle of her stolen destrier, Tamara studied the road. An endless stream of people surged past her heading west.
Families of thin-faced peasants trudged along, all of their worldly possessions hanging in bundles from their sticks, lines of squalling children strung out behind their parents like so many ducklings following their mother to a pond. The richer ones rode on carts that in better days would have carried their produce to market.
Among the peasants were wounded soldiers, deserters, bandits. She had met their likes a few times along the road, but they had not seen through her disguise, and taken her for one of themselves. It had not stopped a few of them trying to rob her for her gear, and her horse. Those that had tried had died, quietly, wondering why breathing was suddenly so difficult and whose blood stained their chests and throats.
“Can ye spare a bit to eat, sir?” asked a ragged pimple-faced youth. A younger brother or friend leaned against him, and his tone was half-way between begging and menace. Her steed marked her out as one who might have money and the lad was simply trying his luck.
“I wish I could,” she said, pitching her voice low and keeping the accent rough. “But I’ve got nothing.”
“Ye’ve got a horse.”
“I ate horse once,” said his companion. He sounded feverish. “Tasted good as pork. As good but different.”
“You can’t eat my horse,” Tamara said. “I need it to carry me East.”
“No sense in goin’ that way, sir. There’s war in the East and Dark Empire soldiers and the Plague.”
“My families in Asterton and I got to get back to them,” she lied smoothly.
“No sense in going there, sir. It’s burned to the ground or so I heard. Soldiers did it. The place was crawling with the walking dead.”
It was not the first time she had heard tales of restless corpses while she was on the road. Every second person seemed to have one to tell, if you had the time to listen. Wicked sorcery had been used in the past few months and she suspected she knew by whom.
“They say the Shadow is spreading its wings over the world, sir, and that the last days are near and that this is a sign. The graveyards are emptying, and the sun will soon go out. Now’s not the time to grudge a man a bite of horse.”
“You bite this horse and he will most likely bite you back. A vicious tempered brute he is.” She hoped they would take the hint. She disliked senseless killing. She supposed she could just put her spurs to the beast and ride them down, but there were risks in that as well.
“Have you seen these walking dead men?” she asked.
“No but we’ve met those that have.” At least they were more honest than some.
“They say it’s the Light’s punishment on us for letting the Queen die,” said the sicker looking one.
“I heard it was punishment for her murdering her old father and trying to seize the throne away from Prince Khaldarus. He’s the rightful heir, after all.”
So even two such as these were caught up in the currents of the civil war. It seemed Sardea’s agents had done their work well.
“He’s the only heir now,” said the other, “so I guess we are stuck with him, unless the Taloreans kill him too and put one of their own on the throne.”
“Bastards wouldn’t have dared try something like that when the old King was alive. General Koth would have sorted them out.”
Tamara wanted to say Koth had been in his grave for over a century, but she doubted it would do any good. The Kharadreans had all sorts of legends about their great human General. Doubtless he was expected to return and save the kingdom momentarily.
“You’re right,” she said, just to mollify them. “They would not have dared. Now if you would just step aside I will be on my way.”
For a moment, she thought they were going to try and block her, and that she was going to have to ride them down. From the expressions on their faces, she guessed that they thought that too, at least for a moment, before their fear and fatigue won out and they stepped aside from her path.
“Good luck on your travels,” she told them as she set her mount in motion along the muddy road.
“Don’t let the walking dead get you,” shouted the sicker-looking one of the pair. His good wishes seemed heartfelt and she felt oddly grateful to him for them, even if he was only a human.
The stink of cheap perfume and tobacco hit Rik as soon as he pushed through the heavy wooden doors of the Nag’s Head. A dozen rouged faces turned to look at him, but his clothes were threadbare, and his manner down at heel. No self-respecting whore would take him for a likely prospect, but that did not stop a few of the more broken down ones sidling closer till he shook his head and pushed them away. Business must really be bad.
“Look who’s here,” said Weasel. No amount of grime or badly patched clothing could deceive his keen eyes. “Slumming again, eh?”
“Halfbreed!” boomed the Barbarian. “Could not keep away from the old company eh?”
The cheeriness in his voice showed he had drunk just enough to be overly friendly, and not quite enough to be violent. Before they could say anymore, Rik slid into the booth and shouted for a beer.
“I’m surprised they are letting you out of the Palace these days,” said Weasel, in a voice low enough to show that he had least understood the need to be discreet. On the table in front of him was a deck of cards, with which no doubt he was about to cheat the rest of the lads out of their wages.
“Yes, after the Queen got it…” Weasel’s elbow in his gut cut the Barbarian off from whatever indiscretion he was about to bellow.
“I snuck out,” said Rik, “and I don’t think this is the time or place to be shouting about from where.”
The Barbarian looked surly. “Then what is it the time and place for?”
“There’s an Inquisitor in town.”
“I know,” said Weasel. “We saved him from some walking corpses.”
“I don’t need to remind you about the book business back in Redtower and what followed at Achenar.”
“No indeed — a profitable business it was,” said the Barbarian.
“One that could get us all burned at the stake if it came to light.”
“If you came all the way down here just to remind us of that, you could have saved yourself a trip,” said Weasel. “We won’t be bringing it up with him even if he drops in for a beer.”
Rik paused for a moment and gathered his thoughts. “I came to warn you. If I disappear into the dungeons, be ready to run. You might not get much warning so keep an ear open and an eye out.”
“You wouldn’t tell on us, would you?” The Barbarian sounded almost childishly disappointed by the thought.
“He might not have a choice if they are applying red hot pliers to his nadgers,” said Weasel thoughtfully. Rik studied them carefully, measuring their response. They would tell no tales and they did not move in circles where the Inquisitors were likely to find them, but you never knew. He had done what he could by letting them know. He had no plans to be taken by the Inquisition but if it happened at least he had warned them.
“Have you heard we’re moving out?” Weasel asked. Another question hung in the air unasked, and Rik thought he’d better give them an answer.
“Yes. I suspect Asea and I will be going with you. The army will need all the sorcerers it can get if it’s going against the Sardeans, and she’s the best we’ve got.”
“Will give me something nice to think about while we’re on the march,” said the Barbarian. “Any chance of fixing us up?”
Rik shook his head. In any other man, the Barbarian’s lust for Asea would be a joke, but as far as Rik could tell, the northerner was too stupid for that.
“Want to keep her all to yourself, eh? Can’t say I blame you.”
The beer arrived and Rik took a swallow. It was not as good as he remembered, perhaps because he had become more accustomed to the fine wines available at the Palace.
“Anything else to report?” Weasel asked. “Being pursued by the hounds of Shadow? Got on the wrong side of the Old Gods? Been found in bed with the Arch-Templar’s pet goat?”
“So far I have avoided all of those things.”
“Probably just as well. A man should only bite off as much trouble as he can chew.”
“I never went looking for trouble. It just seems to find me.”
“Everybody has a gift, so they say. That seems to be yours. Fancy a game of cards?”
“With you? That’s one sort of trouble I have sense enough to avoid.”
“Some good girls in here,” suggested the Barbarian helpfully.
Rik shook his head. “I’d best be heading back.”
“Well, good to see you, and thanks.” There was a sincerity in Weasel’s voice that surprised Rik. “Watch your back.”
“You too,” he said, and headed for the door.
As he stepped into the muddy street, Rik bumped into somebody. Instinctively his hand went to his purse. When he found it was still present, he stepped back.
“Sorry,” he said, surprised to find himself face to face with a crying woman, and even more surprised to find that he recognised her. “Rena?”
“Rik,” she said, wiping her eyes, and setting her face to hardness. They had been lovers once, briefly, before she had taken up with Sardec, and he had become an agent of Asea. He found the sight of her still made his stomach clench. He was not a man who took betrayal well. “What are you doing here?”
“I could ask you the same thing,” he said, almost managing to keep the bitterness from his voice. “I had heard you were living with Sardec.”
“And I had thought you risen too far in the world to be hanging out in soldier’s taverns.” There was a touch of acid in her manner that he did not like.
“I see you have not,” he said. “Trying to earn a little on the side, are we?”
To his surprise she started to cry again. It was not something he was prepared to deal with. She reached out and clutched his arm. He took a step back.
“I have left him,” she said.
“You have left him?” He had to try hard to keep the note of incredulity from his voice. Girls like Rena did not leave rich Terrarchs like Sardec. That was a given in the world they had both lived in. “Why?”
“He did not want me to come with him on campaign.”
“So he was trying to get rid of you?” It was not the most tactful thing he could have said, but somehow the words came out anyway. He was a little ashamed of their gloating tone.
“He said he might not come back,” she said. “He said it would be dangerous.”
Her tone was so pitiful that Rik found himself forced, almost against his will, to say something comforting. “He was not wrong there. The Sardeans are cruel and there are new plagues in the East. The dead are on the march as well, or so folk say.”
“But it’s just as dangerous here, with the walking dead, and the famine and the way the Kharadreans hate us because of the Queen.” She seemed just then to realise exactly who she was talking to. “I don’t believe you killed her. I never did. No matter what people said.”
“I am touched by your faith in me.”
“They would blame somebody like you,” she said. “You’re not one of them. You’re a human.”
There was no arguing with the truth of that statement either but this did not seem like the time or place to be discussing it. He glanced around to see if they had been overheard. No one appeared to be paying the slightest attention, which was just as well. He had no desire to be lynched by an angry mob.
“Do you have a place to stay?” he asked.
“I was going to look for room with some girls I know. They can usually be found in the Nag’s Head.”
“You have enough money?
“I don’t know about any girls but Weasel and the Barbarian are in there. They should be able to point you in the right direction.”
“What about you? Where are you going?”
“I need to get back, to the Palace.”
“I heard they were keeping you a prisoner there.”
“Not quite. But it might be better if you kept quiet about that, right here, right now.”
She looked abashed, as if she suddenly realised that there might be danger in what she was saying. Her hand went to her mouth. “I am sorry, Rik,” she said.
He pulled her hand down, and said, “Don’t be. Just be a little more discreet, and don’t tell anybody you’ve seen me. I might not be the safest person to know.”
“You were never that anyway.”
“Bear that in mind,” he said. “And take care.”
He let go of her arm and strode off into the night, doing his best not to look back. He wondered what would happen to her now. He felt a certain sympathy. She was just another lost soul far from home. He hoped that things would work out for her, but he knew they most likely would not.
Standing on the city walls, watching the seemingly endless ranks of the regiments form up and march out, Rik saw the bat-winged, scythe-wielding angel banners of the Seventh hang over the companies of his old comrades, and the great interlocking dragon pennons of the Ninth Heavy Cavalry fluttering above the howdahs of that regiment’s wyrms. Carts carried the components of the great siege guns. Horse teams pulled the wheeled light cannons behind them along the muddy roads.
Lord General Azaar watched the regiments stream by from a small rise overlooking the city, the same place where Rik had fought a dragon when Halim had been besieged. His general staff were with him, reviewing the troops as they passed.
Fife and drum hammered out a tune to which the units marched with impressive discipline. Along the walls the citizens of Halim lined up to watch their conquerors go. How many spies were among them, counting troops, Rik wondered?
He reckoned Azaar had ten thousand men at best, perhaps a score of siege guns, a hundred cannons. There were sorcerers too, and later there would be dragons dug out from the barrows in which they slept away the winter. Were the spies as impressed as he was, or did they think that ten thousand was a pitiful amount to muster against the Eastern hordes?
The men down there were hungry and not at all in the best of health. It had been a long hard winter and disease and constant skirmishing with rebels and the undead had taken its toll. Perhaps things might have been different if he had managed to save Kathea. Perhaps the natives would not have hated them so much and fought with such fury. That was useless thinking though. Things had not fallen out the way he had hoped. They never really did.
The camp followers were already streaming out of the city, women and children and youths, pedlars and gamblers and whores, all the flotsam and jetsam that drifted in the wake of an army on the march. There were probably as many of them as there were soldiers, and they were going to suffer more on the march. For most of them it was preferable to remaining in a city where they were hated though.
Rik felt a sense of terrible foreboding. Every step towards their eventual destination was a step further away from Talorea. Every league marched was a league that lengthened their supply line and made them more vulnerable. The East was vast, and its empty plains and ancient wastelands could swallow an army far larger than Azaar’s. This was a march from which no one might come back.
The voices in his head, quiet since Asea’s potion stupefied them, whispered words of fear, told him to run away, to seek a place of safety, to put distance between himself and this doomed expedition. Instead he drew the collar of his coat tight around his neck and headed for the postern gate through which he would join up with Asea and the army.
Sardec rode along at the head of the Foragers. His destrier was gentle as such things went, easy to control even for a cripple with one hand. He kept his gaze straight ahead and his expression stern, all too aware that he was under review by his General and the citizens of Halim. The impression they made counted in many different ways.
He fought down the urge to whistle along with the fifes and flex his fingers to the beat of the drum. He watched the backs of the infantrymen in the long columns winding ahead, making sure the regulation fifty paces was between them. If a sudden order to stop came, there would be no accidental mingling of formations.
Try as he might, despite all his efforts, he wondered where Rena was, and whether he had done the right thing. The crisis of their relationship had come on so fast, a whirlwind of words that had uprooted something that had seemed so certain for so long. He had become used to having her around, and he felt her absence the way he sometimes felt the ghost of his missing hand. It was an amputation just as much as the one that had given him his hook. A part of his life was missing, and he wanted desperately to get it back.
It was ludicrous. They were marching to war and death, and he had other things to dwell on than the absence of one human. That thought was as ineffective as a prayer spoken in a nightmare to keep the dream-monsters at bay. He could only keep riding and increase the distance between himself and his woman even as he felt her tug at the direction of his thoughts like the pole star on the needle of a compass.
“I tell you they were cheating,” said Weasel. “That’s why they drew knives and accused me.”
“I see,” said the Barbarian, not seeing, which was quite normal when it came to understanding Weasel’s explanations of why things always went wrong when he was around. His feet were as heavy as lead and his heart was not in marching this morning at all. His back felt as if something might have given way last night during his final session with Shera and Annette. He wished those damned drummers would keep quiet. His head was splitting, and his stomach was as rebellious as a province full of the Clockmaker’s dupes. “Could you go and tell Sardec to get the drummers to keep the noise down? My head is splitting.”
“Certainly,” said Weasel, “And after that I will go and ask Azaar if he can give you leave to take a nap for a few hours so you can sleep off the worst of the beer.”
“It wasn’t the beer,” said the Barbarian. “It was the roasted rat. I knew I should never have touched that bloody stew. Pigeon the innkeeper called it. Since when did pigeons have four legs?”
“It’s never the beer with you, is it? It’s always the stew.” The Barbarian glared at Weasel. As always his eyes were clear and he showed not the slightest ill-effect from the previous evening’s debauchery and brawling. How could he do that? They were the same age.
“Everybody knows that Southern cooking is unhealthy. Not like herring porridge and boiled beets. Why does the army always choose to march when I have a bloody hangover- that’s what I want to know? There’s never a time when it doesn’t. Regular as clockwork. I have a hangover. The army marches.”
“Maybe if you did not drink so much to celebrate our impending departure, you would not have one.”
“How come you don’t? Watering your wine again, sticking to small beer? That’s unhealthy, not to mention unmanly.”
“A man needs a clear head when he’s playing hookjack. Otherwise he’ll never spot cheats.”
“Whatever you say. I think it’s because you can’t take your drink anymore.”
Weasel grinned. “Not like you, eh?”
“I can drink any man half my age under the table.”
“Particularly when you pick the table up and smack it down on their heads.”
The Barbarian grinned, remembering. “I did, didn’t I? Teach the bastard to spill my beer.”
“That it did.”
“When do you think we’ll be stopping?”
“The usual time, an hour or two before sunset so we can make camp.”
“Bloody hell, another six hours of bloody fife music and bloody drums. I hope we meet some Easterners later in the day. I’ll be in the mood for killing then.”
“Best hope you are. There’s going to be a lot of it about before we’re done.”
The Barbarian cast a glance at the crowds on the walls. As always, he suspected they were happy to see the soldiers go, the ungrateful civilian bastards. Still, they’d some good times back there. “We had some good times back there,” he said.
“You mean killing deaders and fighting sorcerers?”
“No, I mean in the taverns, with the girls and the beer.”
“You always say that. Every time we leave a place, you say that. I wish I had a copper coin for every time I have heard you say that.”
“It’s because it’s usually true.”
“You’re not often right, but this time you are.”
“Think they have decent brothels in Sardea?”
“Let’s hope we’re alive to find out.”
He did not sound too hopeful which worried the Barbarian. Weasel was smarter than he was and knew about such things.
The village was quiet as a grave, possibly because all of the people were dead. Their corpses lay in the street, bloated and sick-smelling. A few had been gnawed by feral dogs and hungry rats which had died in turn. Tamara could tell because their corpses lay nearby.
Her steed was frightened, and only the spell of calmness she had laid on its mind kept it from bolting. She could see now where all the tales about the end of the world had come from, and why they were spreading so quickly.
These people had not died easily. Their faces, such as were left, were twisted in ghastly rictuses, their eyes were wide and their limbs contorted as if by terrible muscular spasms. She covered her mouth with a perfumed handkerchief and looked at the nearest corpse.
Its skin was pale and bruised in places. A bird had plucked out an eye. She wondered if there was anyone alive in the village. They might be able to tell her something, or she might find out for herself what the disease was if she could see some symptoms. So far all the dead had been human. Few of their diseases affected Terrarchs, and she was protected by medicinal spells so she was not particularly worried about falling ill herself.
Still, there was something about this place that set her trained senses on edge. Her fingers danced through the patterns of an augury as she muttered an invocation. At first, she noticed nothing, but then she found something just on the edge of her perception, so faint that if she had not been so keyed up she would probably have missed it. There was a very, very faint trace of magic in the air.
She shook her head, puzzled, wondering what it could be. Perhaps this village had been home to a sorcerer, or perhaps some wandering mage had passed through. Maybe someone owned a basic charm, or perhaps someone had purchased a ward against the plague. Finding the source of the magic was her best chance of finding someone alive in this Light-forsaken place.
She drew her blade, unsure as to why, but trusting her instincts. She wanted to get back on the steed and leave. Something made her uneasy and she doubted it was the sight of all the dead bodies. The old weapon felt reassuringly heavy in her grasp. She extended her senses as she had been taught, looking for signs of life, of ambush, of danger.
The breeze whispered through the streets. Somewhere a shutter banged, and an unlatched door creaked in the wind. She caught the sound of movement, faint and furtive. Perhaps it was rats but it never paid to make assumptions in a situation like this.
She concentrated again on her divination and sensed the faint magic once more. She moved around an old stone building and saw a doorway before her. A crudely painted sign depicting a rampant bull hung over the door. The picture was old and flaking away from exposure to the elements. The doorway beneath it yawned like an open mouth. From it came a smell of corruption and decay. From within she sensed movement. A man moved behind the bar, perhaps seeking liquor on the shelves. Under the circumstances she could hardly blame him.
She entered the building and saw a group of men slumped over a table. A huge bald-pated bruiser was behind the bar. He moved slowly as if his limbs were twisted or broken and she wondered if he were just beginning to come down with the plague.
Even as that thought occurred to her, she realised that something was wrong, that he was the source of the magic she had detected. He turned to face her, his eyes flaring greenly, the skin peeling from his face to reveal yellowing teeth. His skin was blotched with mould and something else, and he looked as if he had been dead for quite some time.
“Hungry,” he said. Her sword swept out and took his head off. She turned to leave. This was not a place for the living.
The great wyrm waddled along the Eastern road, a huge reptilian ship carried along by the current of troops. Halim was a week’s march behind them, lost behind ranges of hills. In the howdah, Asea sat under a parasol reading. Rik envied her the ability to do that. His mind raced even as he tried to keep still. He was reminded of their barge trip to Harven. That had not ended well either.
Without looking up Asea said: “You are restless.”
“You could try reviewing the meditation exercises I taught you.”
“I have. This bloody potion makes it difficult to concentrate.”
“All the more reason to practise. It is not always possible to work sorcery under ideal circumstances.”
“I take your point.” He said the words slowly and with emphasis. She sighed and closed the book.
“But you are not willing to act upon it.”
“There are times when it’s difficult to concentrate and this is one of them.”
“You are normally a very focussed young man, Rik. It’s what makes you such an apt pupil. Tell me, what is disturbing you?”
“Everything. Nothing. Nothing I can put my finger on anyway. It’s just that my life — all our lives — seem to be spinning out of control. We are marching to war in the East just as if I were still in the army.”
“You still are, Rik. We are both part of it. There is no escape from duty. Not in times like these. Not ever, really.”
“Look at all these men marching. In a few weeks they may all be dead. In a few weeks they may be walking corpses.”
“That’s the risk a soldier takes, Rik. If war does not get them, plague might. If plague does not get them, hunger might. If hunger does not get them, accident might. If accident does not, old age most certainly will. Everything dies, Rik.”
“Terrarchs do. We simply live longer than humans, Rik.” He looked at her long and hard, trying to measure her youthful beauty against what he knew of her age.
“Are you really two thousand years old?”
“I am two thousand, one hundred and fifty nine years old, give or take a few years.”
“Why do that?”
“The lengths of months and years on Al’Terra were somewhat different from those of Gaeia. I am converting my age into your years for the purposes of satisfying your somewhat impertinent curiosity.”
He considered this. She had told him that the climate was different on the Terrarch homeworld. He had not imagined such basic things as the length of a year might be different. It opened up whole new vistas of strangeness.
“I talked to a sorcerer in Harven who claimed he would give up years of his life for the opportunity to talk to you.”
“You are doing so. I hope it’s worth it.”
“What is it like?”
“Being so old?”
Asea laughed. She seemed genuinely amused but there was a hint of anger in her voice. “You have a lot to learn about tact, Rik.”
“This I know. Are you annoyed?”
“Never apologise for being curious, Rik. At least not to me. The only way to get answers is to ask questions.”
“Are you going to answer mine?”
“Let me think about it. I am not sure there is any easy answer I can give you.”
“Any answer will do. It does not have to be easy.”
“Why this sudden interest in matters of life and death?”
“Kathea is dead. I killed Malkior. There are times, looking at the things in my mind when I know what it’s like to die. The Quan killed many people.”
Asea flashed him warning look. Karim was the wyrm’s mahout. He was her servant, and loyal, but there were some things better not discussed in the presence of anyone save themselves. She raised her hand, and he felt the flow of power as she invoked a ward. He could almost picture the lines of energy weaving around them. His sensitivity to such things had increased recently. External sounds vanished, as the bubble of privacy swirled into being around them.
“This is probably not the best place to discuss this, Rik,” she said. He knew this but the words had forced themselves out anyway. Some compulsion lay on him, some force within his mind.
“I have killed a lot of people,” he said. “I have a lot of strange dreams.”
She cocked her head to one side, concerned. “Go on.”
He tried to approach what was troubling him obliquely, like a hunter moving downwind of a deer. He was not really sure what it was, but he felt its presence as he could sense the presence of an animal in a bush, by the rustling of that which it displaced.
“When I was a soldier it was either me or them. The people I killed I mean. Most of the fights since then have been the same way. I thought about these things, but I never really thought about them, if you know what I mean?”
“No,” she said. He sighed and looked for another approach.
“When I was a kid, the Temple priests told me about heaven and hell. I sort of believed them. As I got older I stopped believing. One priest tells you that you go to hell if you murder someone, but another says it’s all right if you do it in the service of Queen and country. Some men can hold both those thoughts in their mind and believe both. I couldn’t — so one of them had to go.”
“I think I follow you now.”
“In the past few months, it all has become much more complicated. You don’t seem to take the Faith very seriously.”
“It’s hard to do so when you’ve watched it being constructed with your own eyes, Rik.”
“See, you say things like that. If I said them, I could be put to death for it. You say it like it’s just the simple truth.”
“The truth is rarely simple.”
“And then you say things like that. And you have talked to Angels.”
“And your point is?”
“My point is that I don’t know what’s happening anymore, either inside my head or outside it. I still hear voices sometimes, telling me to feed. I can remember what it was like to have the power in me, to be able to work magic so easily that it was like breathing. God help me, there are times when I want that again, more than anything in the world. And there are times I think I will be damned for it. That I am already damned for it.”
“I understand what you mean about wanting to work magic, Rik. I really do. On Al’Terra, it was like that for me, always, even from my earliest youth. I was the most gifted sorcerer at the Mazarian Academy. In my time I created things- towers, airships, spells- that are unthinkable in this world. I was constantly surrounded by magical energy that I could draw on in thousands of different ways. Being here is like being a fish on dry land. I can remember what it was like to have power, Rik, the power to destroy armies, to shatter kingdoms, to quiet earthquakes with words, to build cities by force of will.”
As she spoke her face was transformed, as if the clouds had parted and a ray of sunlight focused on her face. She raised a hand to her cheek and brushed away a strand of her long hair. “I can’t do that anymore, and I never will be able to, and it is like the loss of a limb. Worse, it is like the loss of all my limbs and going blind and deaf at the same time and remembering what it was like to be otherwise.”
“Would you go back? To Al’Terra. If you could?”
“There are times when I think that I would, Rik, even though it would mean my death or worse at the hands of the Princes of Shadow.”
“You knew them, didn’t you? You met them.”
“You are in a morbid mood today.”
“And you think this is an appropriate conversation to be having with an Inquisitor within hailing distance?” She sounded more amused than concerned, but there was something shifty and a little trapped about her eyes that worried him.
“Appropriate or not, it’s the one we are having.”
“Yes, I knew them. I went to school with some of them, studied sorcery alongside them.”
He felt like he was standing on the edge of some vast abyss. He had to restrain the urge to reach out and touch her, to satisfy himself that she was real. Today, for the first time in a long time, he saw her as someone who had stepped out of a legend. She had known saints and angels and devils. She had talked to them. And they were just like her. He had never been more aware of the distance that separated them, in time and space and understanding. He was sorry that he had started this conversation, and repelled and fascinated all at once.
“What were they like?”
“They were like you or me, at least to begin with.” He considered that. Scripture said they were incarnate devils, the very personification of evil. Asea’s manner said something quite different.
“What changed them?”
“I don’t know. I wish I did. We walked along the same road for a very long way, and then they chose a different fork in the path.”
“Did they really make a pact with the Shadow, and sell their souls to it for power?”
“There are times when I am not even sure there is a Shadow, Rik. Not in the sense that you have been taught.”
“The priests always used to tell us that was one of the snares the Shadow used to trap our souls.”
“And maybe they are right. Who can tell? I am not one of the Prophets. God does not talk to me. She never did.” He could see that her gaze was turning inward, as it often did, as she retreated from the prospect of answering his questions. He wanted answers desperately, and he pushed on.
“So you don’t think they made a pact with the Shadow?”
“Al’Terra was not the way the priests taught you it was, Rik. This I know. I was there. For reasons of politics, the Temple tells humans things that make them easier to control. But whatever else they were, the Princes of Shadow were real, and they were wicked, and I do not think it really matters whether they made a pact with the Shadow of God or not. The end result was the same.”
“And yet you say you were once like them, or they were once like you — what changed them?”
She looked at him long and hard. He said, “You told me never to apologise for asking questions. I am merely taking you at your word.”
“There are questions and there are questions, Rik, and there are ways of putting those questions that make them easier or harder to answer. There are ways of making questions weapons as well.”
“I did not mean them so.”
“I know that, but the effect may be the same whether you mean them or not. There are times when I ask myself what the difference was between myself and the Princes of Shadow, and there are times when I do not like the answer.”
“You are not like them. You are not some Lord of Darkness.”
“And you think that is what they are?”
“That is what I have always been told. If you know differently, I will listen.”
“Rik, you will get me burned for heresy yet. I could almost believe Inquisitor Joran put you up to this.” She said it as a joke but for a moment he could see her taking the idea seriously. She waited as if she expected him to say something. There was nothing he could say that would make any difference so he remained silent.
“The Princes of Shadow were like your father, Rik. They were eaters of souls. They devoured their fellow Terrarchs because they needed the power to work magic, and the energy that made magic possible was going away.”
She had alluded to this before but had never seemed to willing to go into details. “So the magic was fading before ever you came to Gaeia.”
She nodded. “In truth I hoped when we came through the Eye of the Sun that we might find the magic once again, a new world with all its magical potential untapped, but it was not so. There was less magic here than on Al’Terra.”
“Why did the magic go away?”
“No one really knows, Rik. My theory is that we simply used it up. Imagine a great forest. Woodcutters come and cut down the trees, to build their houses, to make their fires. It takes trees decades to grow, but more and more people come and build more and more houses. Eventually the forest is gone. Perhaps it was that way, or perhaps it was like a well that runs dry. In any case the magic went away. The Princes of Shadow found another way of acquiring power. They mastered techniques for draining it from living things.”
“Malkior said he wanted to use human beings as cattle. Is that what he meant?”
“Humans possess less magical energy than Terrarchs so you would need far more of them, but it is a similar plan. Unsurprising really since Malkior was a follower of Shadow.”
“The Princes of Shadow killed a lot of your people then.”
“Why didn’t someone stop them?”
“Because at first no one knew, and then they were too powerful. They could still work the great magics when most of us could not. And there were those who hungered for power and followed them because of it.”
“You think it could happen here?”
“I think it has happened here, and that it is still happening here. What alarms me is the thought that the Terrarchs might come to look on humans as cattle.”
“A lot of them already do.”
“There is a difference between looking on something as property and something as food or wood or some other source of power.”
“You think that really might happen?” Rik was prepared to believe many bad things about the Terrarchs but he found it hard to imagine them keeping people in herds.
Asea seemed to follow his thoughts. “It does not take too many people to think that way to have the Princes of Shadow come again, Rik. The ones who do will acquire power that in this world could only be described as god-like.”
The words burned in Rik’s mind, and he hoped their effect was not visible. The Quan had made him privy to such techniques. If he could find a way to tap into them the way Asea claimed then he too could possess such powers. He was not sure he wanted power acquired that way but the temptation was there.
“Were you ever tempted to walk that road?”
“The problem with walking that road is that it drives you mad eventually. You can’t absorb another sentient being’s memories without being affected by them. Your own experiences must have shown you that.”
She was right. He thought of the voices and tried to imagine thousands of them, all crying away in his mind at once. That was not a pleasant prospect.
“Surely there must be techniques for controlling the side-effects.”
“None that I have ever heard of.”
“Why did the Princes of Shadow continue then, if they knew the results?”
“I am guessing that they thought as you did, and did not realise what was happening until it was too late. And Rik, it is worth remembering that the Princes of Shadow were Terrarchs, with hundreds of years of experience, and among the best trained sorcerers of their world.”
The warning in her voice was unmistakable. She obviously could see the way his thoughts were running. “Were you ever tempted?”
“Not once I saw what would happen.”
“Did you look for other ways of casting magic?”
“Of course, but then war was upon us and the Princes of Shadow conquered the world.”
“How did they do that? If someone wanted to devour my soul I would fight against them. I cannot imagine that the majority of Terrarchs were any different.”
“As I am sure you must have realised, things rarely appear that clear cut. The Princes lied about the source of their power, they confused the issue with political arguments. They bound servants with spells. As they gained power, their secret police terrified most folk. If only one in a hundred people vanishes then you can convince yourself that it won’t be you, and that maybe they deserved it anyway. You can build systems where people will co-operate with those who oppress them, Rik. You have seen it here on Gaeia.”
Rik could see the sense in what she was saying. He thought about the world in which he lived. He had been a soldier of the Queen. He had helped put down the Clockmaker’s rebellion. This was a world where humans fought against humans at the behest of Terrarchs. When Talorea clashed with the Dark Empire most of the dying would be done by human beings.
“And yet you want us to fight against the Sardeans?”
Her smile was sour. “I want a better world. But of course that is what a Prince of Shadow would say as well.”
“Why would people follow those who called themselves the Princes of Shadow?” He saw the stupidity of the question even as he said it, and answered it for himself. “They did not call themselves that, did they?”
“They called themselves many things; the Illuminated, the Enlightened Ones, The Brotherhood of Peace. It was their enemies who called them the Princes of Shadow. It’s what they called us.”
“The same way we call Sardea the Dark Empire.”
“Indeed. In all of history I cannot think of any nation that ever called itself the Dark Empire.”
“The Sardeans probably call us that.”
“They call us the Scarlet Empire, the Bloody Handed Empire and a lot worse.”
“Whichever side wins will get to name the other.”
“It was ever so, Rik. I have no doubt that now on Al’Terra, they refer to Gaeia as the world of Shadows.”
He thought about what the Terrarchs had done since they came here, and of what Malkior and perhaps others like him still planned to do. “Maybe they are right.”
Looking down from the hills above Askander, Tamara felt she was finally home. The city lay nestled around the Bay of Claws, a giant monument to the glory of her people. The chill northern sunlight filtered down through thin clouds. It was a light unlike any other she knew, estuarine, over-brilliant, as if the sky had taken on something of the glitter and sheen of the sea. Gulls squawked, and the air had the familiar wet, salt tang.
From up here she could see the mighty dragonspires of the Temples, the ancient walls the city had long outgrown and the statues of former Emperors and Empresses that dominated the squares set at each compass point of the central ring. A dozen more of them stood on huge island plinths in the bay, gazing out to sea.
Over everything loomed the Imperial Palace, a combination of fortress and royal mansion that dominated the city by its sheer size, massive as the cliff in which it had its roots, its walls every bit as strong as the rock on which they rested. It seemed an extension of the cliff, part of some great demonic tusk of stone emerging from the soil of the city. Beneath it was an endless labyrinth of dungeons in which terrible things happened to the enemies of the Empress.
As in all the lands she had ridden through so swiftly, there were signs of gathering war. In the bay a massive fleet was anchored, a mixture of galleons and trading ships pressed into service. The purple flag of Sardea fluttered proudly on every vessel. She was surprised that the fleet had not sailed yet. It must be costing a fortune to keep it there.
The rumours were true then. The Quan Sea Devils had closed the northern waters to all Terrarch vessels, and not even Arachne’s proud fleet would risk the wrath of those alien monsters. Kraken could smash even the mightiest ships in their tentacles, and the Quan possessed alien sorcery that was matchless on the ocean. So much for landing troops by sea on the coasts of Kharadrea.
She studied the city, drinking in its appearance. It was a place that represented all that was proudest and most ancient in the traditions of her people. Cynical as she knew herself to be, it never stopped surprising her that some small part of her responded to that. She was part of a generation who prided themselves on seeing through the follies and hypocrisies of their elders, and yet as she grew older she discovered that she had more in common with them than she liked to think. Perhaps it was her father’s influence.
Her steed panted, grateful for the rest. It was the last and strongest of the relay of post horses she had used since the border. She had driven it unmercifully, using magic when necessary to keep it moving, and she had made good time. The journey had cost her dearly in energy, but its hardships had distracted her from her grief and worries.
The sight of the city below her made it all worthwhile. She loved the place with its broad avenues and ancient alleys, its cafes and salons and palaces, its starving authors and civil servants and its rich nobles who packed it in season from every corner of the far flung Empire. She had grown up here, attending balls and Court functions, taken her first lovers, killed her first enemy, learned sorcery and stealth. She felt the same way about Askander as the First felt about the home world. If she truly had any place in this world, it was here.
With a word, she urged her mount down the long winding road, through the farmlands and estates, towards her father’s ancient townhouse.
Tamara rode through the outskirts of town. The South Road came in through the least fashionable area, where the poorer Terrarch families had their small mansions and the shops of the less expensive tradesmen catering to them were to be found. There were some factories and manufacturing concerns where coaches and saddles and guns and dresses were made. Corrals for livestock driven in from the country stank up some squares. Tanneries belched chemicals into the nearby waters as they turned hides into leather.
There wasn’t the huge slum population she so often encountered in the cities of the West. In the Empire, no humans had been driven off the land, and come to town in search of work. Most Sardean Terrarchs still measured their wealth by the number of thralls they owned.
Askander was considered backwards by the progressives of the West, but that was true only in some areas. In the study of sorcery and the occult mysteries, the Empire still led the world, and there were more scholarly bookshops, and monasteries here than in the whole of Talorea.
There was also a profusion of Temples and shrines to saints, and even at this time of the day, they were surrounded by human supplicants. Within each was an altar and hundreds of sacred ikons and above each altar was a picture of the Empress, revered by them as Madonna and goddess, the living embodiment of the greatness of Sardea.
It was an irony that Tamara’s father had always enjoyed pointing out. In Sardea, where humans were most oppressed, they loved and worshipped their ruler all the more. Many of the older generation claimed that it showed humans loved the lash, and lost respect for those who would not use it. She had heard the arguments trotted out again and again, spoken of with the certainty of religious truth but she had come to doubt them.
Something was happening in the West. The world was changing as the humans woke to the strength of their numbers. The old order would be swept away if it did not adjust to that new reality. Or unless it did something dark and deadly.
As she rode on the size of the buildings increased. Statues to famous Terrarchs stood proudly at every junction and over every fountain. Many clasped ever burning lights in their hands or had them mounted on their crowns or the blades of their swords. By daylight they were merely dull gems but by night they would emit their soft sorcerous glow.
She reached the Ring; its streets lined on the outer side by the palaces of the mighty, on the inner side by the offices of the great government departments such as the House of Gold and the Palace of War. Each of those buildings was sub-divided as a beehive into hundreds of offices where thousands of drones moved from small cells to administer the wishes of their masters who sat like queen bees in their central cells.
The main industry of Askander was government, and the maintenance of the small army of functionaries who oversaw the workings of the great bureaucratic machine. Power was the material that was dealt with here, cut and sewn by those who held it and dispensed to their representatives so that they might go and work the Empress’s will in the wider world. Every Terrarch family had their palaces here for that reason. They could not afford to be too far from the font from which all other benefits flowed.
She was getting stared at now. She had changed out of her earlier disguise but she still looked grubby from travel, dressed in male clothes, and armed. On the roads she had been one more soldier swept along by the winds of war. Here the Terrarchs were more elegant, finely dressed and spectacularly well-groomed. As she sometimes did, she felt suddenly rootless again, out of place among these glittering people, unsure of herself. It was a feeling that had swept over her since her father had begun her true education, and her training as a Shadowblood. She was apart from these people, separated from them by a terrible and holy secret, for which she could be killed if it were ever uncovered.
One or two of the high Terrarchs looked like they might like to hail her or challenge her, but that would not be polite, and it was always possible she was someone of very high status returning on some mission of great importance, so they did what was normal and ignored her.
She entered the Street of Saint Selena and was at once struck by the wealth and beauty of the mansions that fronted it, its proximity to the towering mass of the Imperial Palace that dwarfed them all. She saw the number of small private temples interspersed among the buildings, and the swarms of liveried humans going about their master’s business. She turned right and came to the gates of her father’s house, now her own, she supposed, and was gratified when the humans on guard duty recognised her and saluted her at once.
They were both huge men, flat-featured, cold eyed, with cropped blond hair and a manner that was a mix of politeness and icy menace to anyone other than Terrarchs. Her, they looked genuinely glad to see.
Other servants, and stablehands, came to greet her and soon she was at the centre of a quiet storm of activity, as they welcomed her and made her comfortable. Her horse was taken and stabled. Her rooms were prepared. Fresh clothes and a warm bath at just the right temperature were made ready. As she always did at this stage of her return, she realised how much she had taken these things for granted, how natural it seemed to be in a world where she was the centre of so much flattering attention. She was grateful for it now, but she knew that would pass, and soon it would seem like things had always been that way, until she had to leave the cocoon and make her way in the cold world again.
After she was refreshed she wandered the house. It felt huge and empty, and the fact that her father would never come back to it made it seem all the more so. She paused in the library and looked at his favourite chair where he was wont to sit with his collection of histories and grimoires and books of Al’Terran lore.
As a child he had pointed out many fascinating things to her, had seemed remote and calm and the very epitome of what a civilised Terrarch should be. Only later, as she had come to understand the world of blood and shadows he had always inhabited, did she realise that was a mask, just one of many he had layered over his inner self.
She walked through the ballroom, vast and empty save for some kitchen girls on their knees scrubbing the stone floor, and remembered the balls that had filled the place with music and light, and the intrigues, political and erotic that had taken place in the darker nooks and alcoves. She found herself touching hangings and vases as if to reassure herself of their reality, and the reality of the memories in which they had also been present.
She moved to the huge sitting room with its large bay window and fine view of the street and saw that things had not really changed for other people as they had for her. Out there, the world went on, as it always did. Soldiers marched, nobles rode, merchants sold, thieves stole. Servants came and went, supplicants presented themselves at the doors of the more powerful.
Out there, all was clamour. In here, all was silence.
She knew there were things she should be doing, letters to be written, visits to be made. Great events were taking place, and she should have a hand in their shaping, but at this moment, she found it difficult to care. She wanted to stop for a while and think, to try and put things in perspective in a way she should have done long ago and never had. She wanted time and peace and stability and she knew those were exactly the things she could not have with a great orgy of violence about to sweep through the world.
Briefly she considered what she had witnessed in the West and on the road. She thought of the refugees and the walking corpses and the stink of strange sorcery constantly in the air. She suspected that the Empress’s sorcerers had their hands in that. She could feel the foul magic hovering in the air over the city. There were plenty more like Jaderac to be found at Court, Terrarchs whose ambitions justified their using any means, no matter how loathsome to fulfil them.
Yet for all the size of the Empire’s armies, and all the skill of its sorcerers, she was starting to wonder if this was a war it could win. The West was rich now in a way that it had not been a century ago, its Generals seemed more secure with the new technologies of war- with muskets and alchemy and cannon and all the other new instruments of destruction.
The Scarlet armies had cut through Kharadrea like a sword passing through a bale of hay. Queen Arielle’s forces had responded to the threat of war with far greater swiftness and savagery than any of the Empress’s advisors had forecast. Their humans seemed loyal to the new order. Every intricate scheme that Arachne’s advisors had tried, from raising the mountain tribes to allying with Ilmarec, had been foiled.
Her father, a most powerful sorcerer and assassin, worth a regiment at least on his own, was dead before the war had even begun. Without any pause it looked like the Scarlet armies were marching to meet the Purple. Where was the cowardice so many Sardean nobles had predicted when they saw how the Taloreans had backed down to their humans, granting freedoms and concessions at every turn?
It came as a shock to her to realise how inward-looking and isolated her people were. Living on their great estates, surrounded by the mechanisms of religion and state that reinforced their prejudices, they had convinced themselves that their foes were weaklings and fools, and that, as representatives of the true ancient ways of the Terrarchs, they would inevitably triumph.
It had been her fate to travel in the West and have her ideas challenged. She smiled sardonically. Of course, by her very nature she was forced to be more open-minded than her fellow Sardeans. Her basic training had undermined her faith in all orthodoxies. By virtue of birth, she had been forced to question whether any nation had a monopoly on virtue and of vice.
Her father would have laughed at her doubts. He would have pointed out how necessary this war was for the cause and how the coming chaos would be to pave the way for the great enlightenment. Somehow, he had never been able to see that in many ways, the Western nations were more in keeping with his ideals than the Empire was. He and his people had started off by rebelling against the stultifying rule of the so-called Angels. They had wanted a more equal and open society where the grip of the old on power was released. His thoughts on equality and freedom had never applied to humans though. To him, especially as he had grown older and more dependent on his dark magics, they had been only cattle, incapable of real thought or real life. It was not something she could really accept. She had spent too much time around them to be able to dismiss them so.
A servant knocked and then entered. On a silver tray she bore a letter. Tamara wondered who had sent it, for she had yet to inform anyone she had returned. Either a servant had talked or someone had the house under observation. Neither was surprising, really. It was common policy among many of the great Houses of Sardea. It did not even necessarily mean that one of her servants was a traitor. They might simply have mentioned the fact that the mistress was home while out shopping and been overheard.
She picked up the letter and noticed the seal. It bore a two interlocked serpents, the sign of Xephan, Lord Ilea, an associate of her father’s, the present Prime Minister. She slit the seal with a knife and unfolded the page within. It was dated that day and welcomed her home before inviting her to pay a visit. He had heard disturbing rumours about her father and wished to discuss his fate. It was laced with code words used by the secret Brotherhood to which all three of them belonged that let her know she had no choice but to attend.
She forced down a sense of outrage. Xephan was not her master, nor was he her father. He was not one to command her. She took a deep breath and composed herself. She conjured up a picture of the Terrarch in her mind — tall, slender, with curly hair unusual for her people, tawny eyes with gold flecks. A careful dresser, fastidious, a sometime lover of the Empress who thought himself a poet. A sorcerer of great skill, a seeker after hidden secrets, an initiate of many mysteries. At one time Xephan had been a pupil of her father’s but latterly had come to be a rival and one whom her father had feared for all his insouciance. He was a member of the inner circle of the Brotherhood, privy to all its great secrets.
The fact that he dared write to her in such a fashion told her much. He obviously felt very secure. For the first time she allowed herself to consider what the failure of her father’s schemes actually meant. Failure was not something that enhanced any Terrarch’s reputation, and the stakes had been high. Had rumours that her father had assassinated Kathea reached the capital already? His scheme to capture Asea in Harven had failed. The death of the Talorean candidate for the Kharadrean throne had been meant to redeem that- and would have, had he lived.
She considered her options. The very nature of the way Xephan wrote implied a threat. She decided that she had better go and see him. Sending a servant to bring her pen and paper, she began to compose her reply in her mind.
Set atop high cliffs, the Palace was as much a fortress as a royal residence, and as much a religious centre as either. Guards in Imperial purple stood sentry at gates warded by ancient portcullises and even more ancient spells. Tamara passed over pits spanned by bridges as she made her way in, her papers scrutinised at every watchpoint, even though they were signed by the Prime Minister himself.
Security was even tighter than it had been before she had left. Kathea’s death had upset the Empress, understandably, given the nature of her own mother’s demise. Tamara suspected her father’s hand in that, from hints he had dropped, and she wondered just how complicit the old Empress’s daughter had been. Amarielle’s death had certainly come at a good time for Arachne. She had been out of favour and her mother had been about to announce her sister Arielle as heir. Perhaps her suspicious nature was a reflection of some guilt.
Tamara smiled, wondering if the Empress were capable of such feelings. If the human serfs thought her a goddess, she more than matched their opinion of herself. Her self-centredness was awesome even for a Terrarch.
Don’t be so sour, Tamara told herself. Just because the Empress has not invited you to tea since your father’s departure from high office.
There had been a time when Tamara was something of a favourite with the Empress and her courtiers, but at the time her father had been Prime Minister, so everyone courted his favour in any way they could. Things had been chillier since Malkior’s fall from grace, and perhaps the lack of an Imperial invitation reflected just how deep she was in disfavour herself.
A chamberlain waited for her at the last guard station, warned by whatever discreet system of surveillance was in place. She could just picture messengers scurrying ahead as she was kept waiting at each checkpoint, bearing news of her arrival to Xephan. Then again, perhaps the Terrarch had simply been waiting for her to appear. She had arrived on time for her appointment. Under the circumstances a lack of punctuality would have served no purpose.
The chamberlain bowed to her as she came up. She recognised Ryzarde, a friend of her school days, whom she remembered as something of a sensitive child. There was nothing sensitive about him now though. There was a smirk on his face, the look of one secure in his position dealing with someone not at all secure in their’s.
“Dear, dear Tamara,” he said. “Such a pleasure to see you again. How is your father?”
“I do not know. It has been some time since I have seen him,” she said.
“I trust his…diplomacy… is going well.” Ryzarde was a member of the same cult as her father and Xephan. He knew what Malkior had been trying to do. “A terrible scandal about poor Jaderac, is it not?”
“I do not think this is the time or place to discuss that,” said Tamara.
“Quite. Quite. Your discretion is an example for us all.”
“Gossip is the curse of the Terrarchy.”
“True but it is also our main amusement. For the sake of your delicate sensibilities I will try and limit myself to neutral topics of conversation as we stroll arm in arm through the Palace.”
Gallantly he offered her his arm. Tamara did not take it. Instead she fell in beside him and increased her pace slightly. She knew that Xephan had taken her father’s old ministerial office and she knew where it was. She did not need a guide and Ryzarde needed to be reminded of that.
He talked as they walked, filling her in on the latest Court gossip; which of their old friends were having affairs, who had fought a duel over a human whore, which tailors were fashionable and which simply were not talked about. It was the standard stuff of courtier’s conversation and she was grateful for it. At least he had not quoted any of his execrable poetry to her. Without any further embarrassing incidents she was delivered to the outer chambers of her father’s one time office.
It came as a surprise to her how crowded with petitioners they were. A number of older Terrarch matrons were there, doubtless come to use their influence on behalf of their sons, to seek the Prime Minister’s aid in finding them a place in a fashionable regiment, or under a famous commander. All of them glared at her as she entered, sensing a potential rival. She smiled sweetly back at them and composed herself to wait. She was quite surprised when Xephan’s secretary stepped from the chamber and called her name.
Now some of the matrons smiled back at her. After all, she might have some power herself, or be a personage of some importance to the Prime Minister, a lover or a mistress perhaps. She nodded to one or two of them in a friendly fashion just to encourage their hopes and illusions, and then she stepped into the office and was face to face with the most powerful male Terrarch in the Empire.
“Tamara,” Xephan said. “It is a pleasure to see you.”
“And it is a pleasure to look upon you as well,” she replied, quite honestly. There was no denying that he was worth looking at. He was a Terrarch of quite astonishing beauty, his hair long and dark and glossy, his features sharp and masculine. Tamara could appreciate his looks with an unbiased eye. She preferred a somewhat rougher type herself but she could certainly see what the Empress was said to see in him. His good looks made up for the comparative poverty of his House, and the rustic upbringing he had spent the past century distancing himself from.
He strode across to the door and made sure it was closed, then returned to his desk and uncovered the warding globe there. A few passes and an incantation and it glowed brilliantly, letting them know they could not be overheard by sorcery.
“Your father was indiscreet,” he said, and she was surprised by the amount of anger in his voice. “The Empress is very unhappy. Killing Kathea has upset her greatly. I do not need to remind you, surely, of how any reminder of Royal mortality does that to her.”
“How do you know my father was behind the killing?”
“I have my agents. They saw his body by the way. Asea had him killed and dissected. Our Lady of the West is quite the anatomist.”
So Xephan knew about her father’s death. A stony feeling settled in the pit of her stomach. It was confirmation, if she needed it, of what Rik had said.
“Are you sure your agents are reliable?”
“Indeed I am, sweet Tamara. I had one of them recover his head from where they buried it. Would you like to see it? I have it kept in preservative fluid to remind me of the cost of failure.”
It was all she could do to keep her jaw from dropping. She would not have believed it was possible to get from Halim any faster than she had, and yet, if he was to be believed, Xephan has managed to have her father’s head shipped here. His reach had grown very long indeed.
“I don’t think that will be necessary,” she said calmly.
“Your father’s incompetence, and his protege Jaderac’s, has brought us all to the attention of the Inquisition. Joran is in Halim, making inquiries. There are matters afoot that the Brotherhood did not want brought to their attention for as long as possible.” There had been a time, not so long ago as Terrarchs measured time, when Xephan had been her father’s protege too. He seemed quite determined to forget that.
“Your spies have been busy,” she said, letting a note of amusement show in her voice.
“I am the Empress’s first minister. It is my duty to know that such things are going on. It is your duty to let me know.” She studied him closely.
There was something different about the way he talked to her, about his whole manner. He was more assured, more confident. It was as if he had stepped out of the shadow of her father and become wholly his own person. And there was something else, something she could not quite put her finger on, a subtle difference in the way he carried himself. He was more poised and graceful, seemed to have achieved the control of a dancer or a master swordsman.
“Are you talking about my duty to the Empress or to the Brotherhood?”
“So you speak for the Brotherhood as well as Arachne now?”
“The Council met when news of what had happened to your father reached us. It was decided that I would lead.”
“I should have been there.”
“Alas, you were not here, but do not worry, the meeting was quorate.”
“It’s nice to know that you still consider yourself bound by the same petty rules as others.”
“Do not be foolish, Tamara. We both know the Council’s decision merely reflects the realities of power. They support me because I am the best Terrarch for the job and because I have the most power.”
“And if I disagree?”
“Then you disagree, but your father is dead, killed by some half-breed apprentice, and I do not think you wish to set yourself against the Council.”
In this he was right. The Council contained some of the most potent sorcerers in the Brotherhood as well as some of its richest and most influential members. She felt a growing sense of resentment. Xephan was taking too much for granted, and so were the others. Her father had founded the Brotherhood, and she was his heir. She should at least be consulted. Xephan took her by the arm, gently, as if seeking to mollify her. His grip was surprisingly strong.
“Do not worry,” he said. “Your father did a most excellent job until his regrettable madness set in. We will see that his work is completed and the Enlightened Ones come to rule here.”
There was a total and frightening assurance in his voice, and for a moment, it seemed to her as if something else looked out at her from behind his eyes, something ancient and wicked and not entirely mortal. She was reminded of Rik and what had happened to him, but whatever was in Xephan was both more Terrarch and less innocent than the half-breed youth had been.
“How can you be so certain?” she asked, to see if she could goad him into speaking.
“Because I am their messenger. I have looked into the Black Mirror and seen what lies beyond.”
So that was what had happened, she thought. The Mirror had been centuries in the making, and now they had finally found the courage to use it. Had her father known about this, she wondered? And if so why had he not told her? The Black Mirror was the Brotherhood’s greatest artefact, a device intended to allow communication with Al’Terra.
“That was my father’s role.”
“Your father lacked the purity of spirit. His hungers soiled him and made it impossible for him to look into the depths.”
“So you claim.”
“So I know. Believe me, I now know more about these things than anyone in this world. More even than the likes of Lady Asea or Ilmarec or the other so-called sorcerers of the First.”
There was a fearsome pride in his voice, and a resentment that she understood all too well. They had both stood in the long shadows cast by the First. For someone as ambitious as Xephan that must have been a hard thing to bear.
“I have become greater than your father, greater than the Scarlet sorceress, and soon you shall see proof of it.”
His fingers bit into her arm painfully now, and the malevolent thing behind his eyes looked at her with something like hunger. She began to feel a little bit afraid.
“And you too will have a place in the new order of things, do not worry, Tamara. Your place among us is assured.”
“I am glad to hear it,” she said. “You have taken so much else for granted.”
“The Brotherhood values you very highly,” he said. “Just how highly you shall soon find out.”
“You have a mission for me, I take it.”
“Soon. Soon. Sweet Tamara. After you have renewed your vows of service.”
“To the Brotherhood. We have introduced a new oath and it must be sanctified in the sight of the Enlightened Ones.” Tamara thought she understood where this was going, and she did not like it in the slightest.
“You mean I must look into the Mirror.”
“You grasp the essence of matters so quickly.”
“And what will that do to me?”
“It will give you power beyond your wildest dreams.”
“As it has done for you?”
“And what else has it done to you, Xephan?”
“What do you mean?”
“I fear you are no longer quite yourself.”
“I do not follow you?” It came to her suddenly, with a certainty that brooked no doubting. The sudden shock of the knowledge made her indiscreet.
“You are something else. Or something shares your body? I fear you are possessed, Xephan. I have seen others like you.”
“There are no others like me.” Anger and fear made her voice harsh.
“I think there are. Someone like you killed my father.”
“I can assure you I had nothing to do with that, Tamara.”
“But it does not sadden you that he is dead.”
“I would be lying if I claimed that was so. His time had passed. A new generation must take their place in the fore. It is our turn to shape the world.”
She could see that he believed that utterly, and he seemed perfectly sincere in offering her a place alongside him. She was no longer sure that she wanted to be there though, if it meant becoming like him, or the thing that was in him. She did not want to become like him or her father or Rik. She wanted to remain herself. She schooled her features to blandness, and smiled at him, not wanting him to know what was on her mind.
“Yes,” she said. “You are right. It is long past time.”
“Then you will come to my apartments tonight and we shall go into the Labyrinth below. The coven meets. You will be initiated into a new and greater mystery.”
His touch made her flesh crawl. She made her smile warmer. “I look forward to it,” she said.
“Then until this evening, sweet Tamara, I bid you adieu.”
She walked back into the outer chamber with a measured tread, feeling as if she were stepping between worlds. Out here everything looked normal. Back in the Prime Minister’s chambers insanity waited. She kept her smile fixed on her face as she departed, wondering what she was going to do now.
Guards waited for her as she exited Xephan’s chambers. Briefly she wondered if this was a trap, and whether she was to be whisked off to the dungeons for imprisonment and torture. Had Xephan’s words been meant merely to lull her into a false sense of security? Had he planned this all along? Perhaps she should have killed him while she was within striking distance, if that was still possible.
She took a deep breath and forced herself to relax. If it was a trap, there would be chances to escape if she kept her wits about her. She needed a clear mind to see her opportunities. She cocked her head to one side and smiled at the guard captain.
“Yes,” she said, putting a hint of empty-headed flirtation into her voice. It never did any harm to have people underestimate her, and such thinking came naturally to male Terrarchs of her generation.
“The Empress commands your presence,” he said, courteously enough. His gaze ran over her body, as if he were imagining what she looked like naked. She held his glance while her thoughts were elsewhere. It seemed she was due for an audience with the Imperial presence today after all.
“I hear and I obey,” she said. She put stress on the word obey and was certain she knew what he was thinking.
The presence chambers were huge. Ornate crystal windows gave a sweeping view down upon the city and the harbour beyond. Tall Terrarch guards stood by the doors and hordes of courtiers flocked in the antechambers. Tamara sensed a brittle tension as she entered that had not been there on any of her previous visits. She studied the Court-uniformed Terrarchs surrounding her, picking out familiar faces and noticing the changes in them. Here was old Zhal, the Court Chamberlain, silver haired, silver bearded, subtle and languid. He nodded to her and smiled, warmly. His glittering teeth were porcelain and starmetal. Nearby was Lady Usquoth, unusually plump for a Terrarch, her ringed fingers stained with the sugar of the sweetmeats she munched delicately but ravenously. In the corner a group of her father’s old friends and rivals huddled in conversation, plotting no doubt.
She smiled again at the guard captain, feeling a sudden warm nostalgia, happy to be standing once more at the centre of the world, at least as far as the Empire was concerned, and more than a little disturbed by the unease on the faces looking at her. She flicked her fan open and smiled at each of them in turn, not letting the coolness of certain responses discourage her, or diminish for a moment the warmth of her greeting.
The guard captain moved his head slightly, and touched her arm, letting his hand rest there for longer than was strictly necessary as he indicated that she should keep moving into the inner audience chamber. She moved to the door where Zhal stood waiting. He leaned forward and whispered in her ear.
“Be careful. Her Majesty is in no good mood.”
She giggled as if he had made some small joke for their private amusement, and he smiled as if appreciating her simple sense of humour and swept the door open for her to enter the Imperial presence.
Arachne sat on the Purple Throne, tall and beautiful as ever, her face still youthful despite her centuries, her hair purple-black, her lips full and red and startling against her pale skin. She was more beautiful than any of the ladies-in-waiting surrounding her, who had all been chosen for that exact degree of loveliness. For a moment, under Arachne’s cold, hawk-like gaze, Tamara felt self-conscious, a child being studied by watchful adults, a gawky adolescent under the eyes of her sophisticated elders. The Empress always made her feel that way. She fought to keep down the surge of loyalty she felt. She could not help it — it was almost bred in the bone to all subjects of the Sardean monarchy.
She made the full Court curtsey, waited to be recognised and told to advance, and then proceeded through the intricate quadrille of Imperial protocol till eventually she stood, head bowed before the throne, looking exactly like a properly submissive subject of the Empress.
“Lady Tamara. It pleases me to see you once more.” The Empress’s voice was low and thrilling but it had a falseness in it, a lack of warmth or empathy, a brittle quality that at this moment was somehow emphasised. “You have our leave to speak freely and without awaiting our permission.”
“I thank you, Majesty. It pleases me to stand within the radiance of your august presence.” The surprising thing was that she did feel that way. Old habits died hard.
“There are matters I wish to discuss with you. Step out onto the balcony with me.”
Tamara waited for the Empress to pass through the doors onto the great balcony and then followed her. The platform was massive and decked with flowers, a greenhouse with a fine view of the city and sea below, a place protected by the strongest warding spells, where things might be discussed in utter privacy when the crystal doors were shut. Tamara was suddenly acutely aware that she was alone with the Empress, as she had not been since she was a child.
Arachne turned to look at her, her face no longer a rigid mask, fear written in her eyes. “I am sorry to hear about what happened to your father,” she said.
“I am not entirely certain I know what happened to him,” Tamara said.
“He is dead, or so Xephan tells me. Asea killed him.”
“She was always his enemy.”
“Not always. Only in the struggle that emerged after my mother died.” There was an odd stress on the word mother. Arachne was about the same age now as Amarielle had been when she was murdered, Tamara thought. No wonder she was sensitive about Kathea’s death.
“I know he feared her.”
“He was right to do so. She is the most formidable sorceress the Terrarchs ever produced and even here on this sadly diminished world her magic is deadly. Apparently she has a new tool now — some renegade half-breed killer she plucked from the gutter and made her apprentice. I understand you have met him.”
Was that what this meeting was about? “His name is Rik. I believe she has been teaching him sorcery — he is very powerful.”
“Is it true he killed your father?”
“Rumour would have it so.”
“Then he is to be feared indeed. Your father was a very dangerous Terrarch.”
Tamara sensed she was being watched closely and her reactions weighed in the fine scales of the Empress’s mind. Caution whispered soft warnings in her mind. She had been away from Court too long, and she was not able to judge things as well as she once had been.
“I do not think your Majesty has anything to worry about from him,” she said.
“From him, perhaps. The ones I fear lie closer to home.” The Empress’s nostrils flared and her stare was intense. Her lips were compressed into a thin tight line. Be very careful, Tamara thought.
“What do you mean, Majesty?”
“Why did you go to see the Prime Minister before you came to see me?”
“Lord Xephan sent a note requesting I attend him.”
“Is it necessary for the Empress to request her subjects attend her?”
“Of course not, Majesty. But your Majesty is busy and I had no idea that you had any interest in your most humble subject.”
“Please Tamara, we are alone. Neither you nor your father were ever humble.”
“I cannot contradict your Majesty’s judgement.”
“And please dispense with the false humility. It smacks too much of mockery.”
“I do not understand what your Majesty means.”
“Perhaps I should make myself clear then…I want to know where your loyalty lies. To your Empress or to the Prime Minister.”
To myself, thought Tamara. Her lips said, “To my Empress, of course. I am shocked that your Majesty could think otherwise.”
Arachne’s smile was mocking and, what was worse, contained a hint of fear. It was the nervous grimace of one counterfeiting humour in the face of terror. Tamara had seen the look on the faces of some of the people she had killed as they had tried to talk her out of it. Was the Empress really afraid of her? Did she know the truth about her Shadowblood upbringing? What had Malkior told her?
“Your father and Xephan were not friends,” she said eventually. “Not at the end, at least.”
“That is a fair judgement, your Majesty.”
“Then it is one of the few I have made of late.” Tamara let the silence hang, tempting the other woman to speak. The Empress cleared her throat and continued. “I was not a friend to your father in the last few years of his life. I think that was a grave mistake.”
“My father never doubted that you had his welfare at heart,” she said, knowing full well that her father had cursed Arachne’s fickleness every day when she was the only one around to hear.
“That was kind of him,” said Arachne, as if there had been no irony in Tamara’s statement. “I feared your father, you know. I feared what he was capable of. I feared the power he held. I feared that his subordinates were more loyal to him than to me.”
And that is why you slowly promoted his rivals, Tamara thought, eroding the power base he had built up subtly and over the years. She said, “None of your Majesty’s subjects could possibly feel that way.”
Arachne smiled again and there was humour there this time. Perhaps I let a little too much irony show in my voice that time, Tamara thought. The Empress was not a fool after all, merely a Terrarch whose judgement had been warped by being the centre around which the world orbited for far too long. “I am afraid that there are those who do.”
“Surely all tremble in your divine presence.”
“I have asked you to please spare me the mock humility Tamara. Now I am commanding you to.”
“To hear is to obey. Who is it that worries you so, Majesty?”
“You have come from his presence.”
“Xephan? Surely you have but to dismiss him from his post. He is your creature, Majesty. You made him. You can break him.”
“I promoted him as a counter-balance to your father — that is true. The young are ever ambitious and seek to prove themselves. Your father was of the old breed, and was thought too conservative for this new age.”
“Sometimes it is best to stand by that which is time tested.”
“It has taken me some time to appreciate that.”
“Why do you fear Lord Xephan is disloyal, Majesty?”
“He has grown arrogant, and he has grown powerful.”
“I wrote a warrant of dismissal. My chamberlains did not deliver it.”
Shock rippled through Tamara. It was unheard of for the chamberlains to disobey the reigning Empress. “Dismiss your chamberlains,” Tamara suggested. “Have your guards scourge them and drive them from the Palace.”
“I fear my guards would not obey. I have not dared give the order. I am a prisoner in my own Palace.”
Tamara’s mind whirled. What game was being played here? Was the Empress testing her, or was Xephan really so powerful? Perhaps this whole audience had been arranged simply to show her that power. Deadly currents swirled here. She needed to be careful and cautious. The Empress seemed almost embarrassed by what she had said.
“And there are other reasons for not making the attempt. We are at war with the West now. Any show of disunity would be disastrous.” Tamara thought she saw a scared woman saving face, but chose to disregard the intuition. After all, the Empress might just be acting, or saying these things for reasons of her own. What had happened at Court while she was in the West, Tamara wondered?
“Your Majesty’s words are wise.” Tamara calculated swiftly. It would not be the first time a faction had grown over-powerful at Court. It had happened with Asea and Azaar, and with her own father, but in the end an Empress could always outwait her followers. She held the divine mandate after all, and while circumstances always changed, the bedrock truth of Terrarch society was that the Empress was the chosen one.
“There are times when I think I was the only one who did not want this war,” said Arachne. Tamara wondered at the bare-faced effrontery of that statement. She could never recall the Empress objecting to war in any shape or form before now. Still, it would not pay to point that out. What the Empress chose to believe was the truth. “But your father was for it, and Xephan was for it, all my advisors counselled it.”
“Your Majesty has doubts now?”
“It seems all our clever plans have gone awry. The hill men did not rise. The Harvenites are against us, not with us. Now we try sorcery and this plague is a two edged sword.”
Tamara thought she could see what was really bothering the Empress. No one liked to be associated with failure. If the war was going wrong, it did nothing for the prestige of the throne. She also noted that most of these plans were ones associated with her father, and his desperate schemes to clamber back into the seat of power.
“With all due respect, Majesty, the Harvenites are against everybody. The Quan have closed the Northern sea lanes to all.”
“We do not know that, Tamara. Not for certain. All we know is that they have closed them to us. How do we know that the Taloreans are similarly blockaded?”
“Surely your Majesty has sources of information?”
“Our spy networks have not proven entirely reliable recently.” Another veiled criticism of her father, Tamara thought. Malkior had been responsible for setting up most of those networks. She was starting to wonder whether the Empress has summoned her simply to work out her frustration with the father on the daughter. She studied the Empress closely, taking in Arachne’s body language and expression in the way her father had taught her and decided it was not the case. The Empress really was scared.
And why not? For the first time the enormity of these matters washed over Tamara. If the war with Talorea was lost, the Empress would lose the throne on which she had sat for centuries, and probably even her life. For her, this was an enormous gamble. If they won, she would certainly eliminate her sister. She must expect Arielle to do the same to her.
Tamara tried to see matters as if she were the Empress, cocooned in power and privilege for centuries, and threatened with the loss of what for her would be nothing less than her entire world. Suddenly, the impact of Kathea’s death became understandable, a reminder that even royalty were mortal in the end, that the deadly political game could claim even the lives of those who thought of themselves as players not pawns, that these games were more than a simple amusement to while away the ennui of centuries long lives. The Empress had every reason to be nervous.
“Lord Xephan intends to win the war.”
“I am sure he does,” Tamara said, not bothering to hide the irony this time.
“I am wary of clever schemes for winning wars.”
“That seems wise, Majesty.”
“Tell me honestly Tamara, do you think we can win? You have been in the West recently. You know what they are like.”
Tamara thought about what she had seen. She thought of the great armies, and the bustling cities, and the endless industry of the humans. She pictured the destruction of the Serpent Tower, and Lord Azaar, and Asea and Rik.
“The West is stronger than we were led to believe, Majesty. My father thought they were weak, giving way to the humans as they do. I am not so sure.”
Arachne looked at her. “Such talk could be construed as treason.”
Tamara held her gaze, sensing the Queen-Empress’s nervousness and need to find an outlet for it. Telling rulers what they did not want to hear had always been a quick route to the headsman’s block, and in effect she had just told Arachne there was a possibility that she too might end up losing her head. “Your Majesty asked me for my opinion. I have been honest. I may be wrong but I am merely thinking about what I have seen.”
The Empress became aware of the threat implicit in what she had said, and moved to correct matters. “I appreciate that, and you need have no fear of telling me the truth as you see it.”
It was all Tamara could do to keep from smiling sourly. “What is Lord Xephan’s plan?”
“It is an abomination in the eyes of God, and it might grant us victory. But if it fails…”
Tamara waited for the Empress to explain herself. Arachne let out a long sigh, placed her hands together as if praying and looked at the floor. For a long time she said nothing and when the words came forth her voice was little more than a croak, as if she had trouble forcing the words through her lips.
“There is a chamber in the vaults beneath this Palace where a dozen sorcerers work day and night casting the most potent spell ever shaped on this world.”
Tamara thought she knew where this was going but decided to ask, for the sake of form. “What is the purpose of this spell?”
“Plague and genocide,” she said.
“What?” Tamara was too startled to show the proper forms of respect.
“Plague and genocide. It has already begun. His sorcerers are spreading a new disease, one that kills humans and brings them back as walking dead.”
“That is madness. I have seen these walking dead. They are monsters — a threat to everyone.”
“He has the means to control them. The magic will be invoked soon. The plague is merely the first phase of his plan.”
“How can they do this? Such sorcery was possible on the home world but not here. Or so I was always led to believe.”
“Things have changed. In the vaults beneath this Palace, Xephan has placed an artefact. The Black Mirror. It can be used to draw on the powers that swirl in the voids between worlds. I have seen something like it before.”
“What would that be, your Majesty?”
“It reminds me of the Angel’s gateways we used to walk between worlds. I suspect it is something similar to them.”
Tamara schooled her features to blandness. Was it possible that the Black Mirror was more than simply a way to communicate with Al’Terra? Was it really a gateway? Asea was supposed to have closed the way behind them- what if someone had found a way to re-open it? Her father had always claimed it was possible. There were other things to think about here as well. She considered what she had seen and heard on her journey. She thought of things her father had told her about the wars of Al’Terra.
“Plague is a two-edged weapon.”
“I said that already.”
“What if it strikes down the Terrarchs?”
“Xephan assures me it cannot. We are immune. It affects only humans.”
“What about our humans? What about our serfs?”
“He claims he has the means of protecting them.”
“What if he is wrong?”
“Yes, indeed, Tamara, what if he is wrong? What if the plague claims all our property?”
“You have put this to him,” Tamara asked then remembered to add, “Majesty.”
“I have.” The Empress seemed reluctant to speak on.
“And he said, better that all the humans die than our culture be submerged.”
Tamara looked out of the windows at the ships floating on the sea. They seemed tiny and unreal at this distance, toy ships on a pond. The people on the docks were mere insects. She reminded herself that they were not. They were living creatures. “What?”
“He is right, you know. About that at least. The humans breed too fast. They outnumber us a hundred to one already. In a few centuries it will be a thousand to one. They will have the numbers and the guns to overthrow us if a leader should emerge. Remember Koth?”
“What Terrarch could forget?”
“Imagine a Koth with an army ten times the size of the one he had and modern flintlocks instead of the old matchlocks.”
“Was that idea put to you by Xephan?”
The Empress paused for a moment and considered. “Yes. It was.”
“I wonder why? Did he say how he is going to protect our humans?”
“He has the sorcery.”
“What if he does not?”
“You are surely not suggesting that he would lie about that?”
“Let us consider the fact that he might. Can you imagine what would happen if word got out to the First Families, that we deliberately destroyed their stock of humans?” Tamara thought it better to include herself in that we, although she was sure that Arachne would understand who would really be blamed.
“Why would he do that? Xephan has as much to lose as the rest of us.”
“With all due respect, Majesty, I do not think that is the case. His family is old but it is not rich. I think he has always held a secret resentment against the First Families and this might be a way to destroy their power.” Tamara was making this up to discredit Xephan but even as she said it she saw that there was something to it. “Also if he could control the armies of the dead, he would command the greatest legion in the history of this world.”
This point too was not lost on the Empress. If the humans enjoyed a huge numerical advantage then the dead enjoyed a similar one, and they were considerably less troublesome to lead. “You think he seeks the throne?”
“I do not know, Majesty. It sounds like madness. Who would want to rule an Empire of walking corpses?” She stressed her words, making sure Arachne understood her meaning. Even if Xephan did not supplant her, she might end up the monarch of exactly such an Empire.
“That would not be how it would be,” said Arachne. “We all know that no plague is one hundred per cent fatal. There would be human survivors, their numbers reduced to a manageable level. We could start a breeding program and soon there would be no shortage of servants and farmhands. It would be like culling deer.”
Tamara fought to keep her mouth closed. Was that the only objection the Empress could see here-that there might be a temporary shortage of servants?
“You really have discussed this possibility with Xephan then?”
Arachne’s fists clenched. She looked shame-faced and angry. “Yes.”
Tamara pictured a repeated cycle of human population growth and control, of pogrom and plague and massacre. There was a certain demented logic to it, if you accepted the underlying premise that the whole of Terrarch civilisation was threatened. She could not keep the words from her lips or the scorn from her voice. “Is this what Terrarch civilisation means? Would an Empire that would do such a thing be worth protecting?”
“Xephan said that the weak would say such things. That ruthless decisions were necessary to save our world.”
“And do you agree with him?”
The Empress stood tall for a moment, and Tamara wondered if she had gone too far. She doubted that Arachne was used to being addressed in quite this fashion. The Empress reached out a hand, her fingers curled in threatening claws, and Tamara feared that she was going to try and rip her face, but then the Empress’s hands fell to her side, limp and powerless. Her voice was very soft. “No. I do not agree with him.”
She stood waiting, like a prisoner condemned, and it came to Tamara that perhaps Arachne suspected her of being Xephan’s agent after all, and that she would report this conversation to the sorcerer.
“Then what do you intend to do about it?”
“What can I do?”
“You are the Empress. You could denounce him or sack him.”
“I could end up dead, like my mother.”
“Xephan did not kill your mother. He was not even born when that happened.”
“Someone did. I used to think it was Asea. Now I am not so sure.”
“Who do you think did it?”
“I don’t know. I am simply no longer certain it was her.”
“Let us say I am no longer as naive as I was back then. Now I ask who benefited from splitting the Empire and placing me on the throne. Once I thought it was natural justice that people would want me there.”
Did the Empress really expect her to believe that? From her expression she apparently did. Perhaps it had really been that way, or perhaps it was now simply more convenient for the Empress to believe it was the case. Perhaps it had become necessary for her to rewrite history and forget her old hatreds. There was a long silence and the two of them stared at each other.
“What do you want from me, Majesty?” Tamara said, eventually.
“I want your help against Xephan.”
“You intend to oppose him then?”
“If I can. You must still have some contact with your father’s followers. Some of them will be loyal to you. Some of them might be able to help us against them.”
Once again Tamara felt her scalp prickling and a warning to be careful whispering in her mind. She did not feel at all easy with the way things were developing here. It occurred to her that the Empress and Xephan might be in league, and trying to use her to ferret out any remnants of those who would oppose their plans.
“I do not know who would follow me, Majesty,” said Tamara.
“Then we must seek allies elsewhere.”
“I do not follow you.”
“We must let Asea and my sister know what is happening. Xephan must be stopped.”
Tamara was truly shocked. Arachne appeared completely sincere and reconciled to what she was saying.
“Even if they help it might cost you the Empire, majesty.”
Arachne’s face was bleak. “I have already lost the Empire. The only question remains is whether I will be a figurehead in whose name dreadful evil is worked. Much to my surprise I find that I am not prepared to be.”
“Even if means your death?”
“If the Light wills.” There was silence in the room then the Empress smiled sadly. “Of course, I am hoping for a somewhat different outcome. Do you think it would be possible to have Xephan killed? Your father used to be able to arrange such things.”
“It might be. But Xephan is a powerful sorcerer, and is bound to be well protected.”
“If it could be done subtly, it might be the best solution to our problem. A new treaty could always be made with my sister.”
In her heart Tamara wondered if that was really the case. The Taloreans had armies in Kharadrea now and were unlikely to withdraw them if simply asked. They had made too big a commitment of men and money to simply walk away. “Such a thing might be construed as weakness, Majesty.”
Arachne looked as if she had swallowed something sour, but she said, “You are right. Perhaps it would be best to deal with one problem at a time. First Xephan then the West.”
“Your Majesty is wise.”
“Thank you Tamara, and be assured if you will not find me ungrateful for your aid in these matters.”
Just like my father and Lord Xephan, thought Tamara, but she said, “I live to serve your Majesty. I live to serve.”
“Succeed at this and anything you ask, within reason, will be granted if it’s within my power.”
Tamara liked the way the Empress said within reason. It made her sound as if she meant it.
Tamara slumped down in the chair in her father’s old study, and let the servants bring her herbal tea. She wondered about what Arachne had told her, and whether she had been wise to agree to aid the Empress against Xephan. For all she knew the two were in league and this was a test that Tamara had failed. Her instincts told her otherwise. She believed that, at least as far as ridding herself of the Prime Minister was concerned, Arachne was sincere.
Tamara picked up Xephan’s letter and opened it, more for something to do with her hands than because she wanted to read it. As she suspected it was a summons, telling her to report to the Prime Minister’s Office tonight. It appeared he was sincere about initiating her into the mysteries of the Black Mirror, and she suspected that this was not for her own good. She very much doubted that she would walk away unchanged from that experience. Just the thought of looking into the Black Mirror and of becoming like Xephan and Rik and her father filled her with dread.
She forced those thoughts aside. There were other things to consider. If Xephan was to be killed she would most likely have to do it herself. The sorcerer would be too well-guarded for any one lacking her special talents to have a chance. If she were desperate she could go to his office as she had today and use a concealed weapon, but that would be an obvious assassination, and the Empress could not shield her from the legal consequences of murdering the Prime Minister, even if she wanted to. Tamara might find herself a convenient scapegoat, and the Empress might rid herself of two troublesome subjects at the same time.
Such a direct assault was the option of last resort anyway. Perhaps she could find a tool who would do the deed, a lover who could be convinced the Prime Minister had grievously wronged her and would act to avenge her honour, or some youth who could be goaded to murder in return for the promise of her favours. She had done such things before, but they took time, and were always uncertain and she seriously doubted that any normal mortal would be able to kill Xephan.
No, she would most definitely have to do this herself, if she was to do it all, and it would have to be done out of the public eye. She could not help but feel that time was running out.
The obvious time would be during the ritual of the Black Mirror. Xephan was not about to advertise his presence at a coven meeting and could hardly take Imperial troops along to act as his bodyguard. The disadvantage of this would be that the coven would be there, and would have enacted their own precautions.
She considered killing them all. There were methods that would work- a bagful of the pollen of the Black Lotus tossed into the ritual chamber might do the job. Then again, there would be people present whose support she might need herself. Still it was something worth considering.
A maid brought in some more tea and placed it on the table in front of her. Tamara dismissed her and took a sip. Many of the coven were first rate mages and would carry talismans of protection against poison or know spells to neutralise it. Xephan himself almost certainly would. A deadly drug might slow them but it would not kill them. She needed something swift and certain, and sure to work even against strong protective magic. That meant either a dire blade or truesilver.
They would be suspicious of either. A dire blade would register on wards or divinatory enchantments, and if she was searched a truesilver blade was sure to excite suspicion. They were not the sort of things that you brought to a ritual. The eddy currents caused by the presence of truesilver could disrupt sorcery or cause spells to go awry. These were things that might have catastrophic consequences when powerful magic was involved. And she would not be able to shadow-walk bearing a true silver weapon which might be a fatal disadvantage.
Poison might be useless and truesilver or magic weapons would tip off her targets. They would be shielded against most forms of inimical sorcery. Indeed most of them were better at it than she was. That left main force. She could kill Xephan, with her bare hands if need be. The question was whether she could overcome the rest of the coven and any guards they might have present. She doubted that they would use a Nerghul or a demon but you never knew.
And the whole process raised other questions. Killing Xephan would have consequences. Xephan’s followers would not forgive her for it, if they discovered she had done it, and they were powerful enemies with a very long reach. And Xephan would simply be replaced by someone most likely just as bad, and the Empress would be removed or cowed as before.
In reality Arachne was asking her to destroy the organisation her father had spent so long creating. She did not have much choice in the matter if the Brotherhood were serious about this scheme of killing all the humans. It was the sort of thing her father would have considered in the final days of his madness, and if for no other reason than that, Tamara would oppose it. Perhaps this was one of her father’s schemes and Xephan was merely implementing it. Just thinking about it made her flesh crawl.
She was a killer, pure and simple, but she killed quickly and cleanly and for a reason. The notion of indiscriminate slaughter on so massive a scale not only sickened her, it offended her. It was unworthy of the sophisticated Terrarch intellect. There was no art to it. It was a brutal, brute force solution, the sort of thing that her father would have expected from humans, not his peers, at least back when he had still been sane. She thought of the humans she had known, of her servants, and her lovers, and tried to imagine them as the walking dead. Even if Xephan could protect them, others just like them would die.
And for what — to keep alive the Terrarch dream of dominating a world? The cost was too high. It would break her own people in the end, the knowledge of what they had done, or what had been done in their name. It was one thing to cow a population into submission. It was another to slaughter them in their entirety.
The plan did have merits. She was prepared to admit that. No doubt the human survivors would gain a new respect for the potency of Terrarch sorcery, and another thousand years of Terrarch rule would be guaranteed. But so much could go wrong. Maybe Xephan could not control the walking dead. Maybe the plague would cause the collapse of both nations, and the entire Terrarchy. The whole economy was based on human labour. They tilled the fields. They made the beds, and the clothes and the weapons. It was madness to think that animated corpses could be used as a substitute for skilled labour. If the plague ran out of control, Xephan was unleashing an age of barbarism for the Terrarchs as well as the humans. Surely he could see that?
Maybe Xephan was completely aware of what he was doing. Perhaps it was all part of his plan. In an age of chaos, the whole structure of Terrarch society could be overturned. They would be back in the days of the Conquest when it was the Terrarchs against the world. Maybe that was what he wanted, a rebirth, a renewal of the old ways, an end to decadence. She knew enough of him and his faction to know that such a thing might be possible. They were that ruthless, and wanted to see a return to the ancient martial virtues of the Terrarchy.
There was the Black Mirror to consider — what if the Brotherhood had found a way to open the Gates to Al’Terra? It would not be long before the Princes of Shadow were among them once more. If they weren’t already. It was not a thought that bore considering. Perhaps all of this was merely to pave the way for the Enlightened Ones.
In any case, she had decided to oppose Xephan, as much because he was her rival, as because she considered his plan insane. If she wanted to take on her father’s mantle and stake out a place for herself in the hierarchy of the Empire, Xephan would need to be removed. The only question remained was how she was going to do it.
The best time to strike would be tonight. He had summoned her to his office. It was the place where he would feel most secure. There would be guards outside but she doubted that there would be anyone with him. He would want to discuss Brotherhood business with her in private — she was probably never going to get another chance like this. She did not want to look into the Black Mirror and if she refused, she would instantly come under suspicion.
She considered the advantages. If she did the thing right she would have the advantage of surprise. She doubted that Xephan had any idea of her true capabilities. Of course, she could say the same thing about him. He had changed and doubtless possessed great sorcerous power. Perhaps she would be unable to kill him. On the other hand, it was not going to get any easier if she gave him time to prepare.
She did not like rushing things, haste breeds mistakes, but she could see she was going to have to. She also needed to have a contingency plan in place, in case things went wrong.
She laughed softly. If things went wrong the most likely outcome was her death, but such thinking was neither constructive nor helpful. She needed to have an escape route in place, and a method of getting beyond Xephan’s vengeance. The more she considered it, the more it occurred to her that there really was only one option, the place where she had just come from, the West. She would need to hide herself in the shadow of the only person powerful enough to protect her from the revenge of a cabal of sorcerers, Asea of the Selari.
Tamara lay flat on the roof of Lord Lichtenhau’s mansion and stared at the Palace. She was garbed in tight-fitting black. Soot smudged her face. She checked her gear one last time to be sure everything was in place; poisoned shortsword, throwing knives smeared with magebane, dagger, a garrotte wound around her waist. In the small carryall on her back she had a spidersilk rope and a silence enspelled grapnel, along with a full collection of combat drugs and medications.
Doubts nagged at her. She was not at all sure that killing Xephan would change anything. Another member of the Brotherhood would step up and take his place. There were any number of ambitious politicians and mages among them. Killing one and thinking the matter was over was like stamping on an ant and thinking you had wiped out a whole nest.
But she had to start somewhere. She would kill Xephan, and if need be she would kill his successor, and any successor after that, until eventually they got the message. The slaughter would unbalance the Brotherhood, slow their plans while they investigated, keep them off-balance and nervous. If things worked out right she could implicate other members in the assassination and perhaps trigger an internal war.
As long as they did not suspect what she was about, she could get away with it. Of course, they might work out what she was up to and take steps to eliminate her. She wondered if any of them had known what her father really was, and what she had turned into. She had to trust to the fact that Malkior had been a very secretive Terrarch, and very good at keeping his secrets. Many had died to make certain of them.
She was only putting things off. Procrastination never solved anything. She opened the shadow-path. Reality split in front of her and she stepped forward into the gap. Cold enveloped her. Chill presences surrounded her and she felt as she sometimes did in dreams, as if she were falling endlessly with no hope of being bumped into wakefulness.
A moment later she was on the walls of the Palace, looking back and down over the cliffs onto the slate-tiled roofs where she had been heartbeats before. She breathed hard and took a mouthful of sorcerer’s cordial from her flask to rid herself of the feeling of being drained that shadow-walking always gave her.
She moved along the side of the building, till she was above and just to the right of the window of Xephan’s apartments and looked around for sentries. There were none.
Slipping the grapnel into place, she paid out the line, and then abseiled down, like a spider dropping on a thread of web. It was cold, and the ground was a long way below her. One slip would send her to her death.
The night was pregnant with the possibility of doom. So much could go wrong, and all of it could be fatal. A thrill jolted her body. She loved this. There was no sensation comparable to taking your life in your hands, and measuring your skills against whatever fate might throw at you.
A light glowed through the leaded panes of the window. She swung gently sideways and looked through it. There was nobody within. Coals still glowed feebly in the fireplace. Using her tools she opened the window and entered the room, pulling it closed behind her.
The office looked smaller than it had when she visited previously, presumably because of the gloom and the shadows. Silently she moved over to the door and listened. She could hear voices talking in the antechamber. She put her ear to the keyhole and listened carefully, trying to work out how many of them there were. It would not do to have witnesses. Possibly if there were enough of them, and they had sorcerous enhancements they might even be able to overcome her. To be on the safe side she drew one of her envenomed daggers.
“It seems Azaar’s army has orders to invade Sardea,” said a voice she recognised as Xephan’s.
“Is he mad, to march on the Empire with so small a force?” said Ryzarde. So there were at least two of them. That made things more complicated but only a little more so. She did not find Ryzarde nearly so fearsome as the Prime Minister.
“The First Blade was always over-confident.”
“Perhaps he knows something we don’t. Perhaps the Great Bitch has some new trick up her sleeve. So far she has managed to foil all our best laid schemes.”
“Yes,” said Xephan. “I find that very suspicious. It’s almost as if she had a spy among us.”
“That is not possible.”
“It was impossible to destroy the Serpent Tower but she managed it, while avoiding a Nerghul and the best efforts of Jaderac and the luscious Tamara. Malkior’s plan to kill Kathea was supposed to be fool-proof as well, and now he is dead.”
“It does not matter. Once the Ritual of Death is complete we will have an invincible army at our disposal.”
Tamara froze. It sounded like she was eavesdropping on a council of war. Possibly she might overhear some useful information if she kept listening.
“The plagues have killed many. Soon the dead will outnumber the living, and we will be invincible.”
“This world will change.”
“It will be ours again. The humans will know their place. We will have an obedient army as great as anything they can field.”
“I am almost sorry that Malkior is not here to witness this. The secrets were in his books. Using the spell with the power of the Black Mirror behind it was a stroke of genius if I say so myself.”
The mention of her father froze her. She knew her father had a library of ancient sorcery in a secret chamber in the mansion. Had Xephan and his cohorts managed to plunder it, or had Malkior given them the book willingly when they were his pupils?
Glasses clinked, and wine was sipped. Good, she thought, the two were relaxed. She tested the door gently. It was not locked. She loosened another dagger in its sheath and pulled the door open, taking in the chamber at a glance.
Ryzarde sat in the nearest chair. Xephan stood in the corner with a decanter in his hand. She threw the dagger at him. It flew true and buried itself in his eye. She ripped her second blade clear of its sheath and lunged at Ryzarde. Her spell-enhanced speed carried her across the room, and she buried the blade in his heart.
Even as it went in she knew that something was wrong. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see that Xephan was still standing. He threw the decanter at her with such force that she could not avoid it, only managing to twist her head so that it did not catch her full on. It glanced of her head, and hit the wall, shattering and spraying glass and brandy over Ryzarde.
She rolled, blanking out the pain as she had been taught and tearing her shortsword from its sheath. Xephan stood there, the poisoned dagger protruding from his eye, seemingly unscathed. She saw no weakness in his stance, no sign that his throw had been some sort of last-gasp reflexive spasm.
“What have we here?” he asked, amusement in his voice. “A would-be assassin?”
He tugged the knife from his eye. It came free with a slurping sound, and the gel of his eyeball flowed back together.
A sudden whiff of alcoholic fumes warned her, and she sprang to one side as Ryzarde pounced. He was slowed down no more by her attack than Xephan had been by the one in his eye. It appeared she had been over-confident.
Powerful hands clasped her arm with numbing force, in a grip far stronger than any Terrarch should have possessed. She twisted and slashed down with the blade, aiming for the wrist. The knife’s edge cut flesh but no blood flowed. The cut healed as swiftly as the blade bit. A fist smashed into her with the force of a horse’s kick, sending sparks flying across her field of vision. She speared at her attackers eyes with her fingers and felt them bite home. Her foe gurgled and fell back, leaving her free from his punishing grip. At very least, she had caused him some discomfort.
Things were happening too fast. She had hoped to take her assailants by surprise, but instead she was the one who had been thrown off-balance by their unexpected abilities. Xephan drew a long blade and lunged at her face. She threw herself to one side but it caught the scarf around her face and jerked it free.
“Why it’s the lovely Tamara,” said Xephan. “Did Arachne put you up to this? Was that what your little chat was about? I believe I shall have to show our beloved Empress who is the real ruler of Sardea. Perhaps your corpse will demonstrate that sufficiently.”
The insanity of the situation hit her. Xephan was speaking in perfectly measured, perfectly reasonable tones. He did not look like a Terrarch who had just had a dagger plunged through his eye and into his brain. Ryzarde paid no attention to the poisoned dagger sticking forth from his ribs. Both of them looked amused.
“What has happened to you both?” she asked to distract them as she lunged at Xephan with her shortsword. The blade slashed his face, revealing something black that reminded her of the underside of a woodlouse before the flesh knitted cleanly together again over it. She remembered where she had seen its like; in Jaderac’s alchemical laboratory, when he had created the Nerghul. Had this pair been turned into unholy necromantic monsters? She did not see what else it could be.
“We have been remade,” said Xephan. “As you might have been if you had remained loyal to the Brotherhood. We are immortal and invincible. But really you are the surprising one here, little Tamara. You are impressively skilled.”
He attacked on the last word, and it was all Tamara could do to keep clear of his grasp. Her rolling leap carried her back into the office. Ryzarde came in on her heels, still stinking of brandy. Tamara’s fingers clasped on the coal shovel. She reached into the fire with it, and scooped out the last of the glowing embers, sending them showering over her pursuer. The brandy caught fire, burning in blueish flames, scorching flesh and cloth. Ryzarde reeled back, proving once more the old adage that fire was no friend to the undead.
She considered her options. Soon guards would come to investigate and there was no sense in sticking around for a fight she could not win. She had made enemies tonight she doubted that even the Empress could protect her from. It was time to make a run for it, to get away if she could. She sprang for the window and grabbed the spidersilk line. Momentum carried her out into the night. She let it carry her back to the wall and scampered up it.
She saw Xephan stick his head out the window, not knowing immediately where she had gone. In the darkness the line was almost invisible. Not that it mattered. They would soon have agents looking for her. It would be better not to go back to the mansion.
She felt a brief surge of regret. She would have liked to have found the books they had referred to, but there was no guarantee those were still in the library, or that they would be of any use even if she could find them. No, it was time to flee into the night and hope she could outpace the hounds that would inevitably follow her. There was really only one place for her to go now.
Back to the West, if she could make it.
Tamara pulled the cloak tight around her shoulders and rode on. The farmlands of one of the great estates swept by at a thunderous pace. She was once again in the garb of a military courier but it was only a matter of time before the hounds were on her trail. She had used this disguise before so it was safest to assume that Xephan knew about it and that word would be spread about her, but at the moment, she needed to cover a lot of ground, and this was the easiest way. She could commandeer post horses and travel at haste without attracting too much notice or too many questions.
She let her body flow into the rhythm of the ride. She had a good deal to think about and not much time to work it out. Nowhere in Sardea was safe and not even the Empress could protect her from the Brotherhood. She needed to put herself beyond their reach, and the only place she could think of to do that was in Talorea.
She had something to bargain with- knowledge of Xephan and the Brotherhood that might prove useful to Asea and her cohorts, and there was the private arrangement that Rik had proposed. She might even have something to offer there as well. He was a Shadowblood but an untrained one, and she could show him how to master those skills. She was sure also that Asea could put an assassin of her talents to work. It seemed for the moment that their objectives might be similar. The Brotherhood had them both marked for death and she had no doubt that they would send proficient killers.
There were other things that troubled her. Xephan and Ryzarde had been changed in a way that spoke of a mastery of sorcerous techniques beyond anything in this world. She had only heard of such things in tales of Al’Terra, and the implications filled her with dread. She did not like to think of pitting herself against beings possessed of such powers.
Perhaps the best she could do was find a place to hide, to put her head down and hope that the Brotherhood did not catch up with her. She knew that was a forlorn hope. Until recently she had been confident in her ability to elude anyone. She was a Shadowblood. Normal sorcerers could not hope to trace her by mystical means but there were other ways. Rik and the Nerghul had shown her that. The undead creature had been able to trace him even though he was Shadowblood too. She needed to get away quickly and in a way that would make her almost impossible to follow. Fortunately, she had method of doing so in mind. It was risky but not as much as trying to ride the long roads to the West.
She took a deep breath to calm herself. Unless they had used very potent magic, there was no way Xephan or his men could beat her to where she was going. But then they had access to powerful magic, and perhaps they might even have anticipated her plan. She pushed such thoughts aside. There was no sense in worrying about such things until the possibility materialised.
It had been a busy day, she reflected. She had failed to assassinate the Prime Minister and if things went according to plan she would commit a few more capital crimes before this night was out.
The thought amused her.
There were no guards at the estate gates. No one tried to arrest her as she raced towards the mansion house she had known since childhood. She felt a thrill of nostalgia as she thundered up the tree-lined approach. She remembered the scent and the taste of the night air and the moon-blossoming flowers. She caught the glitter of light on the crystal roof of the glasshouse in which her mother had once cultivated her exotic plants.
Her approach had not gone unnoticed. Lights came on in the windows and armed figures emerged from the doors. She was relieved to see that they were all servants, humans that she remembered, and hopefully loyal to her family still.
Guilt stabbed at her. She had signed all their death warrants by coming here tonight. She told herself that it was not her fault, that Xephan would kill them all anyway, but somehow she could not convince herself of it. She told herself that the deaths of a few score humans did not matter, not compared to the life of a Terrarch and especially her own, but that did not change anything either. She was doing them wrong and she knew it. She cursed herself- who had ever heard of an assassin with a bad conscience?
“Who goes there?” shouted a footman, pointing a blunderbuss in her direction. “You should know we are armed.”
“It is Lady Tamara,” she shouted back, and was gratified and made more guilty still by their immediate recognition. A groom ran to take her horse. If anyone noticed her unusual attire they gave no sign of being concerned.
“You’ll be wanting food, Milady,” said the chief servant.
“I will. Bring it to the dragon cave. I have urgent business to perform there.”
“As you command, Milady.”
Without waiting for any further questions, she headed towards the hill, praying that Ironfang was not still dormant from his winter sleep.
The ornate iron gates were locked. She took a deep breath, catching the faint acrid smell of dragon as she waited for the keeper to come with the keys. It was late, it was unusual to for anyone to want access at this time of night, and the Keeper was old and crotchety. Tamara drummed her fingers against her side. She had the feeling that Xephan’s minions could close in any time, and to be found here would mean death. They knew what she was capable of now, and the Brotherhood would see that anyone sent for her would come prepared. She did not like the idea of facing a host of sorcerously enhanced minions armed with magebane and truesilver.
The Keeper arrived, his keys clanking on a huge iron ring. Two of his apprentices accompanied him with prods and lanterns. He looked up at her, rheumy eyes disapproving, as if this were some dark conspiracy to separate him from his bed. Recognition dawned slowly and he smiled, revealing yellow teeth and black stumps. In the lantern-light his face was as leathery and seamed as those of his charges, and his eyes just as malevolent. They say shepherds come to resemble their sheep, she thought, so why not keepers and their dragons?
“Your wish, mistress?” he asked.
“Ironfang must be ready to fly at dawn.”
“The master sent no word to me, mistress.”
“That’s why he sent me.” At the moment it seemed best not to reveal her plan. All females save the empress were forbidden from riding dragons. She was glad now her father had been sufficiently unconventional as to secretly defy that law and give her lessons. He was always saying you could never tell when a skill might prove useful. At the time, she had not realised that if they were seen she could have been executed for usurping the Empress’s prerogatives. Even then her father had been reckless with her life, a foretaste of what was to come.
The old man shrugged and opened the way. Down in the gloom of the caves something enormous shifted its weight, the echoes of its movements loud. At least Ironfang was awake, she thought, then told herself to wait and see. Perhaps the old beast was simply fidgeting in his sleep. She would not let hope cloud her mind.
They walked down into the darkness. For a long moment, the illusion that she was walking down the gullet of some gigantic monster filled Tamara’s mind. The smell of dragon, and dragon excrement became stronger. They entered the caves proper, and the beast loomed before them, its plate-sized eyes glittering in the dark, as it studied those who had dared disturb it. She could feel its ferocity now, and the power of its aura. Ironfang was old even for a dragon. He had hatched when the Terrarchs first came to this world, one of the last clutches to breed true. As always, confronting a dragon Tamara was acutely aware of how a mouse must feel in the presence of a wildcat.
The Keeper muttered reassuringly, and moved closer to the dragon, showing no signs of fear. He took the grooming pole from his apprentices and began to work on Ironfang’s scales. The dragon let out a hiss of pleasure, for all the world like a dog having his stomach scratched.
Tamara inspected him in the lantern light. He was massive, large as a bridgeback wyrm. The eyes that stared back at her were far more intelligent than any wyrm’s.
“Your father will be wanting his flying suit,” said the Keeper. Without waiting for an answer, he turned to the apprentices and told them to go get it.
“Bring a second,” said Tamara. The Keeper raised an eyebrow and kept scratching away where scale joined scale. He had known about her secret flights with her father. Or at least about the fact that she had accompanied him.
“Do as Lady Tamara says,” he said, almost as if he was the master here, and her orders might not be obeyed without being reinforced by his own. Maybe he was right. It had been a while since she had been down here.
“How is he?” Tamara asked, pointing at Ironfang.
“He’s had a good long winter sleep. He’s been awake and hungry for some time. He should be ready to fly. It’s odd. Most dragons are hibernating longer this year or so I heard, but he’s awake. It’s as if he senses something. I’m not sure what. A lot of strange tales being told, mistress, so no wonder.”
“Dead men walking. The Elder Races stirring. War and rebellion. Maybe it’s the war that’s got him all riled up. He’s a fighting dragon of the old breed, and war calls his sort. Born for the slaughter they are.”
He said that as if he had sure and certain knowledge of it although the last time Ironfang had flown to battle was in the time of Koth over a century before. It was amazing how the keepers transmitted their lore down the generations. She reached out and touched a scale. It was cool and hard and the dragon paid her no more attention than if she had been a fly.
“War is coming for certain,” Tamara said softly. Her father had always claimed that there was some sort of bond between him and this old beast. Might it have sensed his death? She flexed her mystical senses and touched Ironfang with her power. It roared softly in response. The old man looked at her. He was human, so he could not have sensed what she was doing, but he was keenly aware of the dragon and its responses. The beast’s great head rose on its long serpentine neck and then looped down to inspect her. She could smell its carnivore’s breath, and see its dagger-like teeth. The Keeper did not even flinch.
“Aye, he remembers you well enough. Has done ever since you were a lass. They don’t forget you know.”
“I know,” she said thinking that might be a few more betrayals before this particular adventure was done. Ah well, what was one more act of treachery in a life full of them.
She waited for the sun.
“I see no sign of your father, mistress,” said the Keeper, squinting out into the gloom.”
“Saddle Ironfang. I want him ready.” The keeper made the signal with his staff, and Ironfang crouched, wings flexing slightly. He sniffed the air, his long tongue flickering outward, a sure sign of excitement in a dragon. He knew he was going to fly.
The handlers wheeled the saddling platform into place, climbed up it and strapped the saddle on at the base of his neck. Ironfang growled as the hooks of the control harness went into his nostrils and inner ears, but he knew better than to fight it. Tamara was relieved. Sometimes dragons became rebellious just for the sake of it, and that might prove disastrous this morning.
She had to fight down the urge to go outside and check for Xephan’s men. They might be waiting for her even now. Well, if they were, they would be in for a surprise. Ironfang was a war-dragon, and a fierce one.
After what felt like hours the Keeper was satisfied. Tamara did not rush him. A badly fitted saddle and harness might be fatal once she was in the air. A broken strap could result in a long fall.
“Take him out,” she said. The Keeper looked at her again. Technically that was an order that only a dragon’s master could give, and that was her father. “Hurry. Every second counts.”
The Keeper grumbled but gave the signal to the handlers. He was used to her father’s strange comings and goings. The handlers took the control reins and led the old monster out into the light.
He looked magnificent as the sun caught his scales. In daylight, there were few sights to compare to an old dragon getting ready to fly. Ironfang was excited now, flexing his wings experimentally. Even in the tunnel’s mouth she could feel the backdrafts of air swirling as they caught the breeze.
She pulled the heavy leather flying suit over her courier’s costume, ignoring the stares she got from the servants. It was good to have as many layers of clothing as possible on while dragon-mounted. It got very cold up there. She wrapped a scarf around her neck and put on the helmet. It had been designed with a slit to trap her plaited hair. She took the crystal goggles and strapped them on to her forehead. She settled her bag over her shoulders and pulled on the leather gloves.
“Looks like your father has arrived, Milady,” said one of the handlers. Tamara followed his pointing fingers and saw the cloud of dust as a pack of riders raced up the driveway towards the mansion.
Tamara smiled at them as she pulled herself up the ladder and into the foresaddle. She began to strap herself in.
“Milady, you are in the wrong saddle,” said the Keeper. “You should be pillion-mounted.”
Tamara checked the oncoming riders. They had noticed the dragon on the hillside and milled around outside the mansion. Dragons frightened horses and normally they would not approach save under sorcerous control. After a few moments, they began riding towards the Dragon Pit. That was one question answered. There was at least one magician down there, most likely more. It was time to be going.
She took up the reins. She heard warning shouts from below. She had definitely strayed into dangerous territory now. The Keeper and his men shouted for her to stop. She shook her head, feeling she owed them a warning.
“Run before those riders get here. They will kill you,” she shouted. She extended her power once more. She was not the sorcerer her father had been, nor would she ever be so great a dragon rider, but she had enough strength to forge the link between mount and mage.
She felt Ironfang’s presence in her mind, just as he could feel hers in his. She touched that jagged alien intelligence, felt the complex weave of calculation floating above the sea of raw animal appetite. She felt the old dragon’s enormous strength of mind flow over her. To complicate matters she was female and Ironfang was male, and there were reasons why male rider and male dragon were usually paired.
She pushed back, letting Ironfang know she was not be intimidated or dominated. She sensed something like amusement in his mind at her daring, and then the fierce thrust of his will against her own. She gritted her teeth and called upon her internal energy, pushing back hard, and the moment of crisis passed leaving her in control.
Exultation flowed over her. The dragon was hers. She tugged the upper reins and its wings snapped open. The dragon bounded forward. She felt its enormous muscles bunch and swell beneath her. The wind whipped past her face. The wings cracked like the sails of a schooner catching the breeze and moments later Ironfang was aloft.
It was all she could do to keep from crying out with triumph. She looked down on the tops of trees, and watched fences and hedges dwindle beneath her as the dragon gained altitude. In the distance some of the onrushing cavalry had drawn pistols. One of the mages had produced a lightning lash, an ancient weapon of formidable power, strong enough to harm a wyrm or even a dragon. He waved it backwards and forwards and its tip glowed as bright as the sun. In seconds he might even have gathered enough power to strike the dragon.
She tugged the reins and used her mental link to urge Ironfang ever higher. He responded magnificently, wings beating harder and faster he raced towards the clouds, and then banking hard she sent him arrowing towards the distant West.
“I don’t like the look of this,” said the Barbarian. “Not at all.”
Sardec had to agree with him. There was something about this place that set his teeth on edge. The village was quieter than any he had ever seen save those ravaged by war, and this place looked untouched. All the buildings were intact. There were no signs of pillage but the chimneys gave forth no smoke and no animals or children played in the street.
The cavalry had swept through the place earlier and detected no signs of life. It was not along the main route of the army, but perhaps it could provide supplies. They had been assigned to investigate it, just in case. Rumour had it that they were fast approaching the outriders of the Eastern armies and Azaar wanted everything looked at it.
“Maybe the villagers fled when they heard we were coming,” said Toadface, licking his lips with his long tongue.
“Can’t say as I would blame them,” said Weasel. He radiated a feral alertness as he surveyed their surroundings. He obviously felt uneasy too. The sun was low in the sky and something told Sardec that this would be no place to be after dark.
“Deaders,” he said. “I think we’re going to find them here, if anywhere.”
No one disagreed with him. “May as well check out the tavern. See if there is anything worth taking. Check the houses as well. Groups of four. Cover each other. Be careful.”
“No drinking if you find any booze,” Sardec ordered. “I want every man able to fight if we’re attacked.”
For once there were no protests. All of them felt as he did. There was something wrong about this place. Sergeant Hef looked at him meaningfully.
“The locals might have left in a hurry, sir. Taken to the roads. Maybe they wanted to get out of the way of the war.”
“You sound about as convinced of that as I am, Sergeant.” Hef made a rueful grimace and spat on the ground.
“It all feels wrong, sir. All of it. It’s been bad since we left Talorea and its getting worse.”
“You’ll get no argument from me, Sergeant.”
“I was rather hoping I would, sir.”
“We’ve seen nothing but plague and dark magic and assassination since we left the homeland. The Elder races are stirring. The dead walk. I’d be a fool to try and convince you things were fine, and you’d be a fool to believe me. And we’re neither of us fools, are we Sergeant?” Sardec scanned the street as he spoke, watching for any signs of violence.
“I’d like to think that was the case, sir.”
The Foragers had started to emerge from the buildings. A few of them shook their heads. They looked confused. Sardec gestured for Weasel to come back over.
“What did you find, Weasel?” he asked.
“A couple of corpses, sir. Dead a while. Looked like someone had eaten bits of them.” They had seen more and more of that recently. The deaders liked to feed on human flesh. Sardec wondered why that was. He could see no pattern to any of it. Why did some corpses rise and others not? Did the undead feed only on those that did not rise or did they attack each other? He had no answers and he was not sure he wanted any.
“There’s something odd, sir.” Weasel sounded genuinely puzzled.
“Out with it, man.”
“Not enough bodies, sir. Not nearly enough for a village this size.”
“Maybe the cannibals ate them.”
“No bones, sir. Not many half-eaten corpses. There ought to be a lot more about if there was an outbreak of long-pig feasting.”
“Maybe the people fled when the plague hit.”
“Could be, sir. There’s tracks leading out all heading East.”
“Something strange about the spacing of the prints, sir. As if all the people making the tracks were staggering drunk or…”
“Walking dead,” Sardec finished.
They waited for the Foragers to finish checking the houses. They found nothing save a few gnawed bodies and putrefying corpses. Sardec looked at Hef and Weasel.
“Where did the corpse eaters go?” he asked.
“They might be hiding, sir,” said Hef.
Suddenly Handsome Jan came running up. “You’ll want to see this, sir,” he said. He sounded very frightened. Sardec followed him back to the local Temple and together they climbed up into the spire. “I came up here to get a look at the lie of the land as you ordered, sir.”
They reached the top of the Tower, emerged onto the open platform beneath the bell. Sardec had a clear view for leagues around. He did not need to follow the soldier’s pointing finger to see what had him so frightened. An enormous dust cloud was rising along the horizon, out of it loomed the massive forms of Bridgeback wyrms. He could hear something as well, the thunder of strangely powerful drums, beating like the heart of some world-eating monster.
Sardec flicked open his spyglass with his good hand and raised it to his eye. He picked out details, as figures emerged from the dust cloud. There were soldiers there in the purple and black uniforms of Sardea, thousands of them. Judging by the size of the cloud there must be hundreds of thousands marching behind them. How had the Sardeans mustered an army so large, so quickly?
Sardec came to a decision. “We need to take word of this back to Lord Azaar. Now!”
There were really two camps, some people claimed: the one where the soldiers were, and the one where the camp followers slept. Rik knew it was not quite so simple. Many of the troops had families, lovers and friends in the second camp and spent their time there. Others, like himself, sought some form of escape or anonymity there.
The first camp was laid out along Terrarch military lines, all the tents in ordered ranks with the regulation amount of space between them. It had been built around the outskirts of a village marked on the maps as Weswood.
The second camp was anarchic, with lean-tos and tents and people lying in blankets beneath the sky. Fires blazed everywhere, and the smell of smoke and cooking surrounded him. Musicians played, singers sang, and camp-girls called for custom. There were vendors here, selling skewered bird and rabbit and toasted bread. Makeshift bars made from planks set across empty barrels served beer to those who could afford it. Laughter and conversation rang out all around him. He listened to it all, drinking it in, sad that he could no longer feel entirely a part of it. For many years camps like this had been his home. He missed them sometimes.
It was a pity that none of his old company had returned from their patrol sweep yet. He had wanted to talk with them, escape for a few hours the feeling of being trapped in Terrarch intrigue, listen to tales of what they had found on the march, swap lies. He liked Asea well enough, and enjoyed her company but there were times when he needed to get away and this was one of them. From the scouts reports he knew that battle would be joined within the next day or two. The Eastern armies had been sighted by the light cavalry scouts.
“Rik,” a voice he recognised called out to him. “A word.”
He turned and saw Rena sitting there by a fire with a couple of girls he recognised. She rose from the spread blanket on which she had been sitting, adjusted her scarf and walked towards him. He smiled, pleased to see a familiar face in the whole lonely mass of people.
“You decided to come with the army, I see.” He smiled but she did not respond in kind. She looked drawn and worried. “Are you in some sort of trouble?”
“I don’t know. But I think you and Sardec are.”
He felt the hairs on the back of his neck prickle, knowing what she was going to say before she said it. “The Inquisition have been asking about you.”
“They picked you up?”
She nodded. “Back in Halim not long after I spoke to you. They dragged me off to the Palace. Threw me into a cell. Held me there overnight.”
“Then they asked you questions.” He suppressed a cold laugh. The thief-takers back in Sorrow worked in exactly the same way sometimes- picked you up and then left you to stew in a dank cell with no knowledge of why you had been lifted or what they knew about your activities.
She nodded again. Tears ran down her face. The memory had shaken her. “They asked how I knew you and how I knew him.”
“You told them?”
“I told them about Mama Horne’s.”
“What else did you tell them? What else did they ask you?”
“They asked about hill-men.”
“Did they give you any clue why?”
“There had been some murders. One of them was a scout who led the Foragers into the hills to find the Prophet Zarahel.”
“That was his name.”
“What did they want to know?”
“Whether either of you had ever talked about him. What happened to him in the end. It seems you were seen talking to him the night he died.”
Rik shuddered. So they knew that, did they?
“I had nothing to do with his death,” he said, hoping the lie was not evident in his voice. He had not killed the little hill-man but he had no doubt that the death was related to his knowledge of the grimoire he and the Weasel and the Barbarian had taken from the corpse of the Prophet’s tame wizard. If the Inquisition knew about that, it might be burning for sure.
“I never thought you did,” she said. “I told them that. They kept asking any way. They were very persistent. They said that a Terrarch Magister had died on that expedition, and that it was a serious business.”
It got worse, Rik thought. The Inquisition took the deaths of Terrarchs very seriously, particularly magicians. He had thought the regiment had managed to cover the matter up but it looked like he was wrong, and the thing was going to come back to haunt them.
“They asked me whether Sardec and I lived together. They talked about the miscegenation laws. They told me it was a serious matter for both of us. Were they telling the truth?”
“I’ve not heard of anyone being prosecuted under those laws for years but they are still on the books. No doubt the Inquisition find them useful when they want to put pressure on folks. What did you tell them?”
“The truth- what else could I do? They knew so much already, I could not risk lying to them. I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway. Do you think I’ve got Sardec into trouble?”
Rik considered the matter. He was no great expert on the politics of the Terrarchs but he had more experience of them than any other human Rena was likely to know. “I doubt it. He’s from an old and powerful family. His sort can look out for themselves.”
“They said his family would disown him if they found out about us. There would be a scandal. He could lose his commission then what?”
Anger twisted its knife in Rik’s stomach. He hated this. He hated the way their rulers felt no compunction on putting pressure on those who could least defend themselves. They stacked the odds against humans worse than Weasel stacked the cards playing hookjack and then accused the humans of cheating when it suited them.
“Half the officers in the army have human mistresses. If they cashiered all of them they would have to promote humans to lead. How likely do you think that is? They could not afford to do anything to upset the officer corps, not now, not with a war on.”
She looked suddenly hopeful. “You really think so?”
He was in no way certain. Maybe busting one officer would merely make the others more circumspect, but he felt the need to reassure her, and himself too. He did not like feeling like he was at the sharp edge of the Inquisition’s investigations.
“What should I do?” she asked.
Rik thought about it for a moment. There had been a time when he had hated Sardec with a passion and here was an opportunity to drop him into the mire. All he had to do was tell Rena to walk away or maybe come up with some other way to use this information. He considered the thought only briefly and then dismissed it. Once he might have jumped at the chance to do the dirty to Sardec and Rena but he found his hatred had faded, and that he disliked the Inquisition more than ever he had them.
“Maybe you should go and talk to Sardec. Tell him what’s happening. He might be able to use his family’s influence to protect you both.”
“Why would he do that? I am a human. He is a Terrarch.”
“Because it’s in his best interests to do so. It would avoid a scandal for him and his family.”
“Oh,” she said. She looked disappointed as if she had been expecting a different answer to the question entirely. “Do you really think I should do that? Do you really think he would want to speak to me? He was very cruel the last time we talked.”
“He’ll see you if you let him know what it’s all about. He would be mad not to do so.”
Another thought occurred to him. If Rena caused problems for Sardec and his family one easy solution would be to have her disappear permanently. He did not think Sardec would do that, but he was a Terrarch and who knew what they were capable of when their interests were threatened. And even if he meant Rena no harm, his family might use their influence in a way that did her no good whatsoever. Terrarchs were not famous for their regard for human life.
He weighed the possibilities in his mind and found no easy answer. The likes of Joran were capable of using her as a lever to get what they wanted, and that included pulling down Asea and himself. There was no certainty that Sardec and his family would do Rena harm. As far as he could tell, going to Sardec was the best thing for her to do.
He prayed he was not wrong.
“Can I speak with you, Lieutenant?” Sardec looked up from cleaning his sword at the sound of that familiar voice. It was not one he had ever expected to hear again.
“Of course you can, Rena,” he said, studying her closely. She looked pale and haggard and very lovely in the shadows and the firelight. There was a nervousness in her manner that made him feel ashamed. He wanted to tell her how glad he was to see her, but there were soldiers around and other Terrarchs and it would not have been dignified. “What do you have to say?” he could not keep a sullen note out of voice no matter how hard he tried to.
“Could we perhaps speak somewhere more private?” He sighed and picked himself up from the blanket on which he sat. He slid his sword back into his scabbard, and picked up his greatcoat. He draped it over her shoulders. It was surprisingly cold for the time of year and she was not well dressed for the weather.
“Walk with me,” he said, taking her gently by the elbow and moving slowly away from the fire. Rena’s face looked a little flushed. And she said nothing for some time. He waited, not quite sure what to say and unwilling to make a fool out of himself by speaking first.
“All of this frightens me,” she said at last.
“That is understandable. There is dark magic here. The dead walk. Plague stalks the land.”
She shivered. “That is not what I wanted to talk to you about?”
“I guessed as much. Take your time and tell me what is on your mind.”
“The Inquisition were asking about you, and about me, about us, really,” she said at last. Sardec did not know whether to laugh or be angry. She looked so serious. He did not know why he was surprised. It was the sort of thing the Inquisition was always interested in. Thinking about some of the things he had seen in the past year, it was a wonder that they did not have anything better to do. When he did not reply immediately she continued, “They said it was a crime against nature, us being together — against the natural order of things.”
“They would say that,” he said gently. “It’s the sort of thinking they are famous for.”
“They must be right. They are from the Church. They must know more about the will of God then we do.”
There had been a time not so long ago when he would have agreed with her. These days he had his doubts. What had happened between them could not be wrong but he supposed that, being a sinner, an Inquisitor would say he was in no position to make such a judgement. “I disagree.”
“Then that makes you a heretic and your soul is in danger.”
“Is that what Inquisitor Joran told you?”
“How did you know it was him?”
“I guessed. The Inquisitor seems to have his own reasons for sniffing around us.”
“You should not speak of him that way. He is a powerful Terrarch. He could do you harm.”
Sardec kept his voice gentle. “If that were his intention he would have done so already. I fear he has other reasons for going about this business, Rena. He is after bigger fish than you or I.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think he seeks to put pressure on me through you, and then he intends to use me against the Lady Asea.”
“You mean I am doing what he wants by coming to you?”
“It does not matter. You have done the right thing by telling me. And I am glad to see you, Rena.”
“Yes. I could die in battle soon and I am glad to have a chance to see you tonight.”
She took his hands in her own. “You should not talk that way.”
“I am not planning on getting myself killed but accidents have been known to happen in combat.”
“You should not make jokes about it either.”
“I am just trying to lighten the mood. You look worried and I do not wish to see you so.”
“I do not want you to die.”
“That’s good because I do not wish to die either. We agree on something at least. We have not managed to do that very often of late.”
“I am sorry about that but you were so cold when we last spoke.”
“I know and I am sorry. I have been a fool. I always seem to be around you. I do not know why, but that is the way it is.”
“Do not be cold tonight,” she said. “I do not want that. I could not bear it if that were my last memory of you.”
Before he quite knew what was happening, she was in his arms, and he was kissing her.
The world scrolled by beneath Tamara, fields and forests visible through gaps in the clouds. The dragon’s monstrous wings slashed the air, impelling it forward with every stroke. The wind rushing past and the rise and fall of the great beast on every beat gave her a sense of motion. At this height, it was difficult to gain any sense of the distance covered from the movement of landmarks.
The chill bit into her bones. Fatigue threatened to overwhelm her. She took another chew of witchweed, and the drug trickled energy into her bones. Instinctively she glanced over her shoulder but she was alone in the sky save for the clouds and the sun. There were no signs of pursuit.
Surely she must have outdistanced it by now. She had passed over the Kharadrean border long ago and had taken a weaving flight path to confuse any dragon-riders that might have been after her. She could not rule out the possibility that the Brotherhood might have tracked Ironfang using scrying spells but still she doubted they could overhaul her now. Ironfang was a powerful ancient dragon and there were few in the world now to match him for speed and endurance.
She reached down and stroked his scaly neck lovingly. He could not feel the physical caress but the mental one would reach him through the link they shared. He responded in kind, sending her a wave of encouragement. His happiness at being airborne illuminated her mind like sunlight.
For a moment exultation touched her. She felt like a goddess and not even the knowledge she bore could bring her down. Beneath the dragon’s excitement she sensed hunger and the beginnings of fatigue and that brought her back to reality.
Below her a massive army marched, the formations so slow and strangely organised that she decided to get a closer look, even if it meant risking being shot at from the ground.
Down, she told Ironfang.
The dragon altered the flexion of its wings, and swooped lower. The earth seemed to rise to meet them. She had a sudden dizzying attack of vertigo as it came closer with fantastic speed. Beneath her an army stretched to the horizon. Massive wyrms towed huge gun carriages. Squadrons of cavalry raised clouds of dust. Regiments of purple clad soldiers marched in ordered ranks. Noticing the direction she had come from, and assuming she was friendly, they sent up a ragged cheer.
She was so low now that she could make out individuals. She waved to them as they blurred past. A few of the Terrarch officers waved back. They most likely assumed she was a scout or a courier. She nudged Ironfang in the direction of the things that had first drawn her interest.
What she saw staggered her.
Massive crowds of undead creatures marched in ragged rows to the beat of a dismal drum, rotten flesh hung from their bones, their corrupt stink rising to assault even the heavens. Dead eyes traced her path across the skies. There were thousands and thousands of them, and more streamed to join them from every direction. Something about the beat of those drums attracted them. As far as she could tell they were not armed, and they wore no uniforms, but they would not have to. The walking dead could tear a man apart with their bare hands and feast on his flesh.
She reined back and Ironfang began to climb, far slower than he had made his descent. She sensed the great dragon’s confusion and the instinctive revulsion he felt to the unnatural creatures below them. His emotions amplified her own.
The Brotherhood was gathering an army of the dead to invade the West by the power of its magic. The sheer scale of it was staggering and she knew that the size of the horde would grow with every battle. Even those who the plague did not kill would carry its spores in their blood and if they died would rise again. Spells of domination compelled them to flock to the Sardean banner. The longer the war went on the more unstoppable that army would become. The things she had seen were just the first small stones in an avalanche of undead flesh that would eventually overwhelm the world.
Not for the first time since she had set out did she wonder if she was wise to flee to her father’s ancient enemies. It was entirely possible that the West would fall beneath the power that Xephan had unleashed. There might be no escape there. Maybe the smartest thing she could do would be fly Ironfang to the uttermost West of the Ascalean continent and take ship across the Western Ocean. The chances were that it would not save her. In the end, if the Brotherhood won, they would conquer the entire world and there would be no escape from their grasp.
That was the curse of being a Terrarch, she thought sourly. If you lived long enough things caught up with you, and the chances were that she would have a long life.
Something of her anger touched the dragon and he screamed with a sound like a huge blade dragged down a giant shield. She did not want to run. She wanted to fight. She began slow breathing exercises to calm herself. One of the disadvantages of riding a dragon was that emotional feedback occurred. Her anger would stoke the dragons and its increased rage would feed back into her, forging a cycle of wrath that might eventually drive her berserk if she did not control it.
She urged her mount on, knowing that she would have to find a place beyond the reach of the Army of the Dead’s scouts if she was escape the clutches of the Brotherhood. Somewhere up ahead must be the army of the West.
Tamara circled over the Talorean army. There was no doubt it was them. They were heading East, the red dragon banner fluttered above many units though there were far fewer of them than there were Sardeans to the East. The trick was going to be reaching the army’s commanders without getting herself killed. Even bringing the dragon down to within hailing distance risked being peppered with fire by the Talorean Skywatchers.
Was she doing the right thing? She might get herself killed down there. There was a war on, and many would suspect her of being a spy. Their suspicions would be more than justified by the fact that until recently, that was exactly what she had been.
It would be easier to set down out of sight and join the army by stealth but that would mean abandoning Ironfang to his own devices and that she was reluctant to do. Without a rider, he might easily go rogue and in the coming struggle a full grown war-dragon was far too potent a weapon to lose. Besides that she had become fond of the old monster. A bond had been forged between them in more than the magical sense. They had shared fears and thoughts and emotions. He was her last link to her old life, and she was reluctant to give him up.
She continued to circle certain that someone down there had noticed her. She needed to come to a decision soon. It would not be long before a flight of dragons was sent to intercept her. She was not sure she wanted to face a trained dragonrider and his long-time mount, let alone a whole squadron of them. Even a beast as powerful as Ironfang would be torn from the skies by lesser dragons in sufficient numbers.
A plan formed in her mind. No time like the present, she thought, and ordered her mount down to land. She aimed for a point well to the fore of the oncoming army and prayed that no one would do anything stupid before they found out who she was.
Ironfang settled on the ground atop a small hillock, giving her a fine view of the oncoming army. An onrushing cloud of dust told her that she had been spotted, and that scout’s were coming to meet her. She forced herself to remain calm as they approached, removing her helmet and goggles so that they might see her face.
The Talorean scouts stopped at hailing distance. They were dragoons. A group of them dismounted and raised their carbines to cover her. Ironfang arched his neck and hissed a warning. Tamara had a dreadful sense that it was all about to go terribly wrong.
She put a smile on her face, even though they probably could not see it and shouted, “I am an Emissary from the East. I wish to speak to the Lady Asea.”
“Give me one good reason for not having you killed?” Asea said.
Tamara knew how close to death she stood. Her dragon had been taken away to join the western flights. Both Rik and Karim had weapons drawn, and Asea was garbed in her full battle armour. Soldiers ringed the tent. Glowglobes burned so brightly that there were no shadows present for her to vanish into. She eyed Asea with cool insolence and said, “Because I have information you might find useful and a proposition that may save your life.”
“Go on,” said Asea.
Tamara shrugged. “I know what Rik is. You know what I am. That knowledge could get all of us placed upon a pyre.”
“All the more reason for silencing you forever,” said Asea. Her voice was softer now though and her manner more conciliatory. She was turning things over in her head, trying to work out all the angles. “Given who you are and what you have done, I cannot trust you within striking distance of myself or Rik.”
“No more than I can trust you. I think we will have to rely on the fact that we have shared interests and common enemies.”
“And who would those be?”
“The Princes of Shadow.”
The temperature in the tent seemed to dip. Karim raised himself up on his toes ready to strike. Tamara cocked her head to one side, and smiled winningly. “I see that comes as no surprise to you,” she said. “Oh dear, I was rather hoping for a more dramatic response. Gasps of amazement and horror, that sort of thing.”
“These are not matters for levity,” said Asea. “Your father served the Princes all of his long life. I have no reason to believe that you do not either.”
“You are right about my father. You are wrong about me. At least in part.”
“I don’t think that is possible. You are either serve the Princes or you don’t. They do not allow any other choice in the matter.”
“Perhaps not on Al’Terra but we are not on the homeworld now. For you and my father the Princes were real. Their deeds were something you experienced. Their power was something that you encountered. For me they were little more than a myth, a belief of my father’s that I humoured, the way I humour the humans who believe in the Prophets.”
“And something happened to change your mind?”
“I found out my father was right and I was wrong and I found out that I am not cut out to serve.”
“Die on your feet rather than live on your knees? Surprisingly noble sentiments for an assassin.”
“I would prefer living on my feet to dying on my knees which I think are my current options.”
“We shall see what happens,” said Asea. “For the moment, your life is in my hands. What is this information you have for me?”
“I tried to kill Xephan,” said Tamara.
“The Prime Minister? That was ambitious of you.”
“The Empress commanded me to do it. She is afraid of him.” Tamara swiftly explained the circumstances surrounding her precipitous departure from Sardea. She sensed Asea’s unwillingness to believe and deliberately kept her delivery as flat as possible. She did not seek to elicit sympathy, merely to convey the facts. She talked of the Black Mirror and the great spell being cast in the vaults of the Palace.
After she had finished there was silence. It was obvious that none of her listeners knew exactly what to say. At least they had not laughed at her or told her she was lying.
“It all fits,” said Rik. Tamara had to fight to stop herself from shooting him a grateful look. Asea nodded but then glared at Tamara. “That does not mean I trust you.”
“I do not ask you to do so. But believe me, I have no more love for Xephan and his cronies than you do. And they dislike me as much as you now.”
“That remains to be seen,” said Asea.
“I can help you,” she said. “And you can help me.”
“In what way?”
“I can train Rik,” she said. “I can turn him into what you want him to be.”
Asea’s stare became a fraction more arctic. Tamara could almost see the cogs turning in her brain as she made her calculations. “And what would you want in return?”
At least they were in a negotiating situation now. Tamara weighed out her own words carefully. “I want your protection. I want a place in the new order if you win. And I want another chance to kill Xephan. You will help me with your knowledge.”
Asea measured her, and came to a decision. “I will think about it but in the meantime you will accept truesilver chains.”
“And if I refuse?”
“I will kill you. You are too dangerous to let go free. Do you accept?”
Tamara felt trapped. When she was in the chains there was no way she could use her powers to escape. She would be entirely in Asea's hands. On the other hand, if she did not accept she might never leave this place alive. She doubted that she could overcome all three of them in combat.
There were other options. She could agree now and seek to escape later before she was put in chains. She could try and open a shadow path now and depart before they could stop her. Of course, that would leave her in the midst of an army of her foes, and with no more protection against Xephan and his ilk than she had before she came here, even assuming she could escape.
Asea’s gaze was fixed upon her. And she realised that the sorceress was simply waiting for her to try something. If she made any attempt to get away she would be confirming Asea’s suspicions.
And there was something else. She did not want Xephan to rule Sardea and she did not want the Princes of Shadow to rule this world. She had made her decision instinctively during that first assassination attempt. In her bones, she was his enemy. She would oppose him with her life if necessary. If it was a choice between serving him or Asea, she would choose Asea rather than that otherworldly horror. She straightened her shoulders. “Very well then, I agree to your terms."
“ Karim — bring the chains!” said Asea with a smile of triumph.
Karim produced fetters from one of the massive travelling chests and fixed her arms behind her back. He was not gentle. The chains went into place with a loud click.
“What do you think?” Rik asked.
“About what?” Asea replied. Tamara had been taken from the tent in chains, and was now under guard by the Foragers. Rik hoped they would not do anything stupid. The last time Tamara had encountered the Barbarian and Weasel, she had left the big man badly wounded. He was not normally the sort to be vindictive but you never knew. His pride had been hurt by being overcome by what he would describe as a slip of a girl.
“I honestly have no idea, Rik. She seems sincere but she might have been sent here on some mission by the Empress or Xephan. She might have been sent to find out what we know or what we suspect. She could have been sent here to kill any one of us.”
“Do you think that’s likely?”
“If she had been sent on an assassination mission it would be much easier for her to simply wait in the shadows for an opportune moment then strike. No, it’s something deeper than that.”
“Or she’s telling the truth.”
“I do not entirely discount that possibility.”
“Can you probe her mind?”
“She is too good a sorceress for that. She will be protected. There’s no way of doing that without smashing her sanity. And if she is telling the truth I would rather not do it. I would prefer to have her on my side.”
“Do you think that she really will train me?”
“If she has not been sent to kill you, it’s possible she’s been sent to win you to her side. Or to corrupt you.”
“I doubt she could do that.”
“You do not know what she is capable of, or what powers she might possess.”
“I meant I doubt that she could make me any more corrupt than I already am.”
“She might surprise you.” A look of concern passed over Asea’s face. “Do not hate yourself, Rik. You are not responsible for what happened with the Quan.”
“If I am not, who is?”
Rik felt compelled to mention the other question that was praying on his mind. “I am surprised she agreed to the chains so easily.”
“So am I, Rik. I am starting to wonder what Tamara may have up her sleeve.”
“What has happened to your prisoner?” asked Inquisitor Joran.
“I have her under lock and key.”
Rik did not like the interest the High Inquisitor was showing in Tamara. He seemed far too eager to get his hands on her. Of course, it was possible he was simply curious. The whole army was since Tamara had made her spectacular arrival on dragonback. Rumours abounded, that she was a royal Princess come to aid them, that she was a sorceress who knew something about the plague, that she was an Emissary of the Dragon Angel sent to tell them about the righteousness of their cause. Soldiers were worse than old women for gossiping and just as capable of spinning a story out of events they had witnessed.
“I would like to talk to her,” said Joran. At least he was being polite to Asea. He was not making demands, not asking that the prisoner be given over to him and his people for questioning. He seemed more subdued now that they were on the march. He most likely realised that Asea was more valuable to the army than he was and that her half-brother was in command. He was certainly capable of being diplomatic when he wanted to be.
“Of course,” Asea responded. “As soon as I have made sure that she is no threat to us.”
“In what way could she be a threat?”
“There could be some spell embedded in her body, of pestilence, or contagion or death. Or perhaps a curse.”
“The Lady Tamara is a high noble of Sardea. Surely no one would think of using her in such a fashion.”
Asea looked at the Inquisitor coldly. “Terrible sorcery is being used to cause this plague of walking dead.”
“But you have already been exposed to her.”
“All the more reason that no one else is until I have ascertained whether she is spellbound or not.”
“I am willing to risk myself. The Light protects its own.”
“I am unwilling to put you at risk. If anything should happen to me, you will be needed more than ever. Rest assured I will tell you everything I find out, and let you know as soon as I am certain it is safe.”
“How long will that take?”
“You will know by this evening. I do not think that is too long to wait in a case like this.”
Anger flickered across the Inquisitor’s face. He was not pleased but he did not seem prepared to push things at this moment so he bowed courteously and said. “Very well,” he said. “I shall return in at the sixth bell.”
Tamara lay in the cellar of the abandoned farmhouse to which she had been transferred, staring at the ceiling, considering what had occurred. The place was damp and the air smelled of mould. The weight of the truesilver fetters lay heavy on her and she found it oddly disturbing that she could not invoke her powers. It made her feel terribly vulnerable.
Her thoughts were interrupted when Asea entered the room. Karim was with her and Rik. They were all armed and looked ready for violence. Tamara could not help herself. “It’s flattering to know that you have such high regard for how dangerous I am,” she said.
“Flattering or not, it is the case — although in those chains your fangs are well and truly drawn.” There was an utter glacial certainty in Asea’s voice. She looked totally confident.
“Are you sure?” Tamara asked. She could not help herself. There was something about Asea’s manner that got on her nerves. She was tempted to spring at her. She knew many ways of killing with her bare hands. She wanted to wipe that smug look from Asea’s face. If the price was her life…
She pushed the madness to one side. Such an attack was the option of last resort and would most likely fail. Karim knew as much as she did about unarmed killing and was prepared for any attack. The signs were written all over him.
And then there was Rik, an unknown quantity if ever there was one. He was loyal to Asea and he had killed her father, as dangerous a Terrarch as ever lived.
The realisation struck her that all her reservations masked a much deeper truth, one that explained her instinctive reaction. She was afraid of Asea, and she had not encountered many things that frightened her in this life. Of all the people in this world, Asea must know what she was capable of, and yet she stood in front of her unafraid. If Tamara had not loathed her, she would have admired her, and she was self aware enough to know that was just one more component of her fear.
Whatever she might claim Asea did not fear her, even knowing things about her that would have terrified other Terrarchs. Well, Tamara had faced overconfident foes in the past. As with Rik, people tended to underestimate her. Unlike with Rik, that was usually because she willed it.
“You will soon have another visitor, a Terrarch named Joran,” said Asea.
“The High Inquisitor?”
“What does he want?”
“To question you.”
“What shall I tell him?”
“The truth insofar as it does not compromise you. Tell him what you know.”
“That I attempted to assassinate Xephan- he might wonder how I escaped.”
“You do not need to tell him you made the attempt in person.”
“Then how will I convince him about the possession.”
“You have heard rumours, talked with people who have seen strange things. Dark sorcery is taking place in Askander. Tell him that.”
“He will suspect me of lying.”
“Of course he will. He is an Inquisitor. But better that he suspects you of untruths about your sources than of being what you are.”
“He might decide to put me to the question.”
“You are my guest. That means you are under my protection.”
“And you are under Lord Azaar’s protection.”
“Your grasp of the situation is admirably quick.”
Tamara considered what she would have to say. It would be easiest to appear somewhat stupider than she was, and more vicious and ambitious. She had encountered plenty of Terrarch women who were and had perfected blending in among them. On the other hand, she had flown away on a dragon which bespoke a certain amount of daring.
Of course, she was distant kin to the Empress. She could claim that Arachne was corrupt and she intended to replace her. That would excuse her taking on the royal privileges at least in the eyes of a monumentally ambitious Terrarch. That would make her seem sufficiently self-justifying. Tamara wondered whether the idea had been lounging around at the back of her mind waiting for an opportunity to present itself. That was fine though, playing a role was always more convincing when there was something of yourself in it.
“What if he asks me about these chains?" She could not resist aiming that small barb.
Asea’s smile was alarming. “Tell him the truth. That I do not trust you and I suspect you of being a sorceress.”
“Isn’t that against the law to bind a fellow Terrarch without Royal permission?”
“So is riding a dragon if you are not the Empress. But we are at war. A lot can be forgiven under those circumstances.”
“This might come back to haunt you in the future,” said Tamara. It was the only small consolation she could find in the situation.
“It won’t be the first time,” said Asea, “and I doubt that it will be the last. Come now, let us meet the Inquisitor. He is very keen to meet you.”
“Lady Tamara,” said Inquisitor Joran. “I trust you are well?”
Joran did not fit Tamara’s preconceptions of what a High Inquisitor should be like. He was affable, relaxed and charming. He wore no ceremonial robes or military uniform. He could have been any high noble who had attached himself to the army as spectator.
“As well as can be expected under the circumstances.”
Joran studied their surroundings and wrinkled his nose fastidiously. “I suspect you are used to better accommodations than this.”
“They are actually rather good compared to some of the places I have seen. Many troops are billeted in roofless houses. No one is exactly comfortable.”
“I think I might enjoy sleeping under the stars.”
“Given the fact that our two nations are at war, a certain lack of hospitality is, sadly, only to be expected.” His manner made it clear that there was no personal animus because of the war. Like most Terrarchs of the old families, he was capable of separating the two. An accomplished deceiver herself, Tamara appreciated the skill with which he carried the pose. She smiled warmly back, a young Terrarch woman fooled by his courtly ease and slightly upset by her treatment, complaining to a sympathetic listener.
“Is that what you would call it?”
“I am sure if Lady Asea were to fall into Sardean hands, her welcome would be no warmer.”
“You are correct.”
“Thank you. Regrettably there are questions I must ask you as well.”
“I suspected that there might be.”
“You have come from the East and you are a schismatic.”
“I have known priests in the East who would say the same of you.”
“And you would agree with them, of course?” There was no threat in his tone. He was merely a kindly priest leading an errant pupil along so that he could correct her errors later. Or so his manner implied.
“I have never taken any position on the matter. I always suspected the breaking of the church was more of a political matter than a spiritual one.”
Joran smiled warmly. Tamara felt the need to be on guard. “Though as a voice of the faith I should not, I agree with you on that.”
“If you will forgive me for saying so, you seem very mild-mannered for an Inquisitor.”
“A certain honesty is needed for my duties. You and I are not humans, Lady Tamara. We do not need such strict spiritual guidance as they do.” The smile vanished as quickly as it came. “Why did you come here?”
“I made enemies in Sardea.”
“Riding on a dragon will do that for you.”
“I made them before then.”
“There are those on this side of the border who would frown on such an act of lesse majesty.”
“I am sure there are but given a choice between public disapproval and losing my life, I will risk the former.”
“You might be risking the latter as well.”
“Then let me rephrase things. I would prefer death deferred to death immediate.”
“That is understandable. Why did you ask to see the Lady Asea, and not General Azaar upon your arrival?”
“I have met Lady Asea before.”
“You regard her as a friend?”
“As an enemy you respect.”
“That might be closer to the truth.”
“Did you come here to kill her?”
“You have tried to have her killed in the past.” There was a subtle shift in Joran’s manner. He became less ingratiating and more menacing.
“What makes you think that?”
“Your activities as an agent of the Sardean crown are not unknown to us?”
“By us do you mean the Temple or the Talorean government?”
“I stand before you as a representative of both.”
Tamara considered what else Joran might know. There had been a time not so long ago when the knowledge that the Talorean secret service had been aware of her movements would have caused her the greatest concern but at the moment she had other things to worry about. She decided to test what he knew.
“I was not aware I had performed any activities as an agent of the Sardean government.”
“You have suffered a blow to the head recently, perhaps. I understand that can lead to selective amnesia.”
She met his cold smile with a warm one of her own. “Perhaps if you gave me some examples, they might refresh my memory.”
“You offered the half-breed Rik considerable rewards to kill Asea.” Tamara kept her face blank. How had he learned this? Had Rik told him that?
“You would take the word of a half-breed guttersnipe over mine.”
“He merely confirmed the information when I asked him to, but it was only confirmation. We already knew.”
“Who told you that?”
“I am not at liberty to divulge the source of that information.” Was he lying, Tamara wondered. She thought about who had known of her mission to Morven. Her father and Ilmarec were the only two of whom she was certain. Perhaps others in the Brotherhood had known. Had the Brotherhood been penetrated or was someone within it feeding information to the Inquisition for their own purposes.
“You were also present in Halim when Queen Kathea was killed. As indeed was your father. You at least survived. He did not.”
Tamara was surprised by how raw the mention of Malkior’s death made her nerves feel.
“He killed Kathea you know, your father. There are a number of people in this country who would be very happy to get their hands on his daughter. The Kharadreans have always been fond of revenge. Some would say it’s a national fault.”
“It would appear that a number of people have reason to want me dead,” said Tamara. “Those who think I committed an offence against the Royal dignity, half the population of Kharadrea…”
“Oh I would say more than half. You were an associate of the late Lord Jaderac. There are some who claim his necromantic rituals were responsible for the undead plague.”
“More than half of the population of Kharadrea, the Lady Asea. Have I missed anybody out?”
“There are always your putative enemies back in Sardea but I think you have mentioned enough to be going on with. What surprises me is that the Lady Asea has not asked for your life. She knows you planned to kill her.”
“I suspect she finds the idea of my premature death wasteful. She wants to let you pick my brains first and then use me against Sardea. After I have served her purpose I will go to greet my ancestors.”
“How does she intend to use you?”
“Ask her, I am sure she will tell you.”
“Indulge me. Speculate.”
“I am my father’s daughter. I am distantly kin to the Empress Arachne through my mother. I stand to inherit some rather large estates in Sardea.”
“You are a sorceress. You have been behind several assassinations, the cause of several duels between some rather foolish young nobles. You are neither as naive nor as foolish as you pretend, Lady Tamara. Please don’t assume I am either.”
How much does he really know, Tamara wondered? How much of this is just fishing. Asea knew everything- about the Shadowblood, about her father’s allegiance to the Princes of Shadow. Could he know as well? Had Asea told him? No. That made no sense. Still, the Inquisition had a vast network of informants and many centuries of practise at sifting through their information. Had her father and the Brotherhood underestimated them? Joran changed tack, swiftly changing the subject before she had time to think things through.
“Lady Asea tells me you think the servants of the Princes of Shadow are among us. Why do you think that?”
“Because I have seen the darkest sorcery being practised within the Palace, by the Prime Minister Xephan and his companions.”
“You are willing to swear to that? Under oath.”
Tamara thought she saw where this was going. Her claims would be made public and used to justify the Talorean cause. Their march East would become a crusade against the forces of darkness. And why not? That was what it was.
“There are other things I could swear to as well. Armies of the Dead march with the Sardeans. I saw them from the saddle of my dragon. You will encounter them soon.”
“Good,” said Joran. “Very good. Keep this up and you may ride on dragonback again.”
She stared at him. He appeared to be hinting that he could put her on the Sardean throne. If that was really the case, she was certain it was as much for his own good as hers. No, she thought. It was entirely because he thought it would be to his own advantage. Her wellbeing was of no concern to people like Joran and Asea. Considering the fate of Kathea, it might prove to be a very unhealthy position to be in.
Well, she thought, she had decided to try and ride this particular dragon. Now she would just have to make sure she could stay in the saddle as it bucked.
“This is not been quite the welcome I was hoping for,” said Tamara, looking up at Rik. He had entered the chamber silently and stood looking at her from the doorway. It was a busy night. Inquisitor Joran had just left.
“Did you really expect Asea to greet you with open arms?”
“A little more sympathy and a little less I told you so would be appreciated.”
“Given what Asea knows about your father I think she’s doing rather well by you.”
“You are not the one weighed down by truesilver chains.”
“There is that.”
“It’s nice to see that you are still so open-minded.”
“I came to see if you wanted anything.”
“A key to these fetters would be appreciated.”
“I’m afraid I don’t have one. You are lucky — I heard Karim suggesting they should be welded shut. He fears you might be able to pick the lock.”
“If I had a mirror, a lock-pick and prehensile toes he would be right. Sadly I don’t.”
“Is there anything else I can get you besides a lock-pick?”
“You can tell me what you want. I know there is a reason you came here. Charity is not your style. Did Asea send you?”
“No. I came of my own accord.”
“Well, it’s nice of you to come and pass the time. Now ask me whatever it is you want to know?”
“What did you tell Joran?”
“As little as I could. But I suspect you are asking about whether I mentioned your connection with my father.”
“That is perceptive of you.”
Tamara shook her head, realising that she had found a lever that might help her in this situation. She possessed knowledge that might be useful to pressure Rik. She could threaten to reveal his secret to the Inquisitor. Of course, it would have to be done carefully. The simplest solution to that threat would be to have her killed.
“Can you really teach me how to walk through shadows, change my appearance and all that?”
“I can try. I have never actually taught anyone before. All I can do is teach you the way my father taught me.”
“Asea thinks it might be a trap, a way to corrupt me.”
“You are quite corrupt enough without my help.”
“That’s what I told her.”
“You have the gift of self-awareness.”
“One of my many talents. How would you teach me?”
“I would start with the basics and work my way up?”
“What are the basics?”
“I think you already understand some of them. You could sense when I was going to arrive when shadow walking, couldn’t you?”
“I think so.”
“That means you have the gift. I imagine Asea has taught you basic exercises for sorcery as well.”
“Excellent. Your feet are already well set upon the path then.”
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“Fix your eyes on the nearest shadow.”
“Now concentrate on it. What does it look like?”
“It’s your shadow, seen from the side.” The shadow shifted as Tamara turned to look at it. “Focus on it really hard. Fix every detail in your mind. Now close your eyes and picture it exactly as it was.”
A look of concentration passed across his face as he did so. “Now what?” he asked.
“Just hold it in your mind. Try and picture it as clearly as you can. As clearly as if you were seeing it.”
“Now open your eyes.”
His eyes snapped open. “Is it the same as you visualised?”
“What do you mean maybe?”
“It’s not perfect. Maybe because you have moved your head.”
“Or maybe because your ability to visualise is far from perfect.”
“What am I supposed to do now?”
“Try again, and keep trying again until you can get it right.”
“You’re kidding me?”
“If Asea has been teaching you sorcery you must have done this sort of thing before. From repetition comes mastery.”
“That is certainly something I have heard before.”
“And you’ll certainly hear it again, because it’s a basic truth of all magic and all learning.”
“Now you do sound like Asea.”
“I don’t take that as a compliment.”
“Somehow I thought that would be the case.”
“When you can visualise the shadows around you perfectly, see them as they are, without opening your eyes you will have walked aways along our path.”
“I trust you had an enlightening chat with your half-sister?” Asea said when he entered the chambers in the old farmhouse that they shared.
“She has begun to explain to me how a shadow walking works.”
“Describe the technique.” Rik did so. When he finished Asea nodded and said, “It sounds like it should work. She is preparing you to begin manipulating shadow at the most basic level unless I miss my guess.”
“Could you do this? Could you learn what she is teaching?”
“I could do this elementary exercises but I am sure that she will soon teach more complicated things, and the ability to work those is in the blood, passed from parent to child. My talents do not run in that direction.”
“Is it dangerous- what she is teaching me?”
“All knowledge is dangerous in the wrong hands, Rik. Be very careful of what she tells you. A teacher can place all manner of traps in her spells to ensnare the unwary apprentice.”
Rik smiled at her. “The same could be said of you.”
“I am sure it is, Rik. But this is deadly serious. I have no reason to want you dead. What will you do if Tamara teaches you the way into the Shadow paths but the way she gives you to exit them fails to work?”
It was a good question and one to which he had no easy answer. It rather took away his pleasure in learning a new form of sorcery.
“By the way, you had better get dressed in your best. We have been invited to dine with my brother this evening.”
Wonderful, Rik thought. What could the General possibly want with him?
Rik felt out of his depth in the tent of the inhuman General, Lord Azaar. A floating chandelier illuminated the sumptuously furnished space with magical light. Spells of silence deadened the noise from the army camped around them. The shadowy outlines of servants and sentries loomed through the water-repellent spidersilk. It was the night before battle and all of the staff officers had been at dinner and gone. Neither Asea nor her brother could sleep. He had no idea why he had been asked to stay on. The voices whispered to him to be careful.
On one side of a rune-inlaid table sat Lady Asea, tall, stately and beautiful as a painter’s dream. On the other side of the table, his features concealed by a silver face mask, his rotten stench not quite concealed by the heavy musk wafting from his neck-hung pomander, lounged Azaar, Lord of Battles, Commander of the armies of the West.
On the table between them was a chessboard. As far as Rik could tell the two were equally matched, but their play was far beyond his understanding so his opinion on the subject was worthless.
Asea finished her contemplation and raised her queen moving it to a position that threatened the General’s left flank. Azaar nodded and moved a bishop immediately in response. It was evidently a move he had anticipated.
“I don’t like it,” he said. His voice was clear and rasping, his accents those of one used to being listened to respectfully and obeyed instantly. “These damned winds have blown plague out of the East all winter. The dead stir in their graves. The living fall sick and die faster than we can burn them. My scouts report that we will encounter the Eastern army tomorrow and it is much larger than I expected. I would have considered retreating before it but it's moving faster than we are and anyway I have my damned orders to advance East and engage the enemy.”
Asea stared at the board, her eyes concentrating on her pieces. She seemed to be paying no attention to her half-brother’s words. She moved one of her pawns moved forward to block the bishop’s attack on the Queen.
“There’s dark magic at work in this plague, for sure,” said Asea, as Azaar’s reached out and pulled his bishop back. “I have not seen anything so virulent since we left Al’Terra, and the way the victims rise afterwards is disturbing to say the least.”
"What's more disturbing is that the dead seem to be joining with Easterners."
Asea steepled her fingers in front of her and studied her reflection in the General’s mask. “Someone has cast a necromantic spell of immense power. I can feel its workings over this entire land.”
“Can you disrupt it?”
“Perhaps locally but even then perhaps not. I have not felt magic this powerful since we left the home world.”
“I wish you had not told me that,” Azaar said. “I'd like to think that you were the most powerful wizard on the planet.”
"Not anymore," she said. "Whoever is behind this is far more powerful than I."
Rik did not find this in the least reassuring. He shuddered. The General turned his bright mad eye on Rik. It took all the youth’s self control to keep from flinching. Azaar's family had been killed by Shadowblood and that if the General ever suspected what he was, the best he could expect was a quick death.
"I hear that you have the Lady Tamara in truesilver chains. Is there any particular reason for that?"
"Despite her appearance, she is a very powerful sorcerer."
"So was her father so that does not surprise me. Why do you think she chose to join us now?"
"She claims to have fallen out with the new rulers of Sardea. She claims that the Prime Minister is a follower of the Shadow and that he has a grudge against her."
"The bit about Xephan is quite possible," he said the General. "Her father and Xephan were great rivals. Xephan schemed to have old Malkior replaced for decades. Do you think there's any truth to the other part of Tamara's claim?"
"I fear there is. All of this sorcery, the plague, the war, the assassinations, the rising of Elder daemons — it's all connected."
"Then it's happening — what we've always feared. The Shadow has followed us to this world at last."
"Yes," Asea said. "And we are not ready for it."
"We were never going to be ready for it."
Asea seemed amused. As always she met adversity with perfect poise. Rik wished he could emulate her but he lacked her centuries of practise. Azaar looked at Rik as if trying to judge how he was taking this. Rik realised that he was in a position of immense trust if these two members of the First were prepared to discuss this in front of him.
The beadiness of the General’s stare increased. “There’s something about you I can’t quite fathom, boy. Something uncanny.”
Rik took a deep breath and willed himself to be calm. What did Azaar suspect? Rik had many secrets, any one of which would be cause for having him executed. Deep in his mind, the voice of beings long dead whispered to him. He did his best to will them to silence but it was hard to do under the circumstances.
“You’ve been teaching him sorcery, haven’t you, Asea?” It was not a question. “It’s written all over him. The question is why?”
Asea did not answer and the General went on speaking so quietly it seemed like he was talking to himself. “And he’s always there when strange things happen. He was at Achenar when the Spider God woke, and he was with you in Morven when you destroyed the Serpent Tower. He saved Queen Kathea and then he was accused of killing her. Easy to see why the Inquisition might be interested in him.”
He stared directly at Rik and said, “The eye of the storm always passes over you, boy. Have you any idea why that is?”
Rik’s mouth was dry. What did the General suspect? Why had he mentioned Inquisitors? “I have no idea, sir.”
There was no mirth in the ancient General’s cackling laughter. “I am not entirely sure I believe you.”
Rik wondered what he was supposed to say to that. He was in no position to argue with the supreme commander of the army. Technically speaking, he was still under his authority in the eyes of the law, even if he was no longer a soldier. At this moment, despite what he said, Azaar was the dictator of Kharadrea and would be until Queen Arielle sent someone to replace him.
"Leave Rik alone, Azaar," said Asea. "He's your guest and he's been adopted into our clan."
“Of course, where are my manners? I apologise, Rik. I have yet to congratulate you and I have something to give you — a gift to welcome you into our extended family.”
He summoned a servant with a gesture and the man brought a long wooden case. Asea looked up with interest, her gaze flickering between her brother and Rik. The servant gave the casket to the General and he offered it to Rik with his own hands. “Go on, take it!”
Rik took the box. It was made of a wood he had never seen before, ancient and polished. There was a smell of wax and incense about it and his thievish instincts told him at once that it was old and valuable.
“Open it up!” said Azaar. Rik did so and saw that there was a blade contained within it. The sword was long and straight and there were runes set on the blade. It was quite the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“A princely gift,” said Asea. “That blade came from Al’Terra, didn’t it?”
Azaar nodded. “It was made before we came to this world. See that you do nothing to disgrace it.”
Rik realised that this sword was probably worth more than all the things he had ever owned put together and then some. It was a weapon that could protect its owner from magic and which could kill daemons and Nerghul and other monsters.
“If this boy is going to be your bodyguard, I suspect is going to need a weapon like that,” said Azaar. He snapped his fingers and the servant brought a scabbard. It was plain and gave no hint of the wealth represented by the sword it was made to contain. Rik slid the blade home and then strapped the scabbard onto his belt. It hung there as if it had been made for him, and he barely felt the weight.
He bowed low to the General and said, “I thank you, sir. It is a gift beyond price.”
“My sister has brought you into our family. I want the world to know that I have welcomed you too. It may prove some protection to you in the days to come.” He shrugged and then maliciously added, “Then again, it might not. I am not without enemies myself.”
“I will do my best to see that I bring no disgrace on you or your sister,” said Rik.
“You’d better, boy. You’d better. Tomorrow we meet with the Sardeans so you’ll have a chance to live up to those words.”
“Look at them,” said the Barbarian, he pulled the sausage he was warming out of the fire and pointed the spit in the general direction of Sergeant Hef and his family. The Sergeant, his wife and all of their kids were on their knees praying, beside the small tent they all shared.
“It’s good someone is praying for our survival,” said Weasel “Maybe the Light will listen. You never know. Stranger things have happened.”
“Waste of time,” said the Barbarian, taking another slug from his vodka flask. The burning liquid scorched his throat. He offered the flask to Weasel who took it gratefully enough. “If your time is up, your time is up. No amount of praying will do any good.”
Weasel gave him a crazy lop-sided grin after he had finished a long pull on the flask. “You know that for certain, do you?”
“How many guys have you seen pray the night before battle that had their brains blown out the next day?”
“A fair number,” said Weasel “But I’ve known a few that prayed and they were spared too. Who is to say it didn’t make a difference?”
“I’ve never prayed before battle and I am still here.”
“There’s some would say it’s because you’re too stupid to die.”
“Show me where they are and I will show them how stupid I am.”
“Why this sudden interest in religion?” Weasel asked. “It’s never bothered you before.”
The Barbarian considered voicing what was on his mind. He felt ashamed. It was not the sort of thing a man was supposed to admit to. He kept a wary eye on the praying family and eventually managed to force the words out. “I am worried,” he said at last.
“What bloody things?”
“I’ve heard folk talking. Some of them think the end of the world is coming- what with the dead men walking and the Elder demons waking and all.”
“I could see where they might get that idea,” said Weasel. “But it’s not like you to allow an idea to force its way into your head uninvited.”
“I know and that’s one of the things that’s bothering me. What if they are right? What if the end of the world is here?”
“Not much the likes of you and me can do about it, is there? I doubt God or his Shadow are going to pay much attention to what we think.”
“That’s it you see, maybe they would if we prayed to them.”
“If you think it would help, maybe you should give it a try.”
“What about you?”
“I am not much of the praying kind.”
“But it might help. Maybe a couple of extra prayers might swing the balance. They say in the balance of power between the two is very close.”
“If it makes you feel any better, I’ll pray with you.”
“I thought you have to be sincere when you pray.”
“Believe me when I ask God to spare us and give us some loot, I will be sincere.”
“Fair enough, let’s get started then.”
“No time like the present.”
Weasel gave him a nasty grin. “I just thought of something.”
“You never prayed before any other battle and you’re still here, right?”
“What if that’s why you have luck?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“Well you never prayed before and you survived. Why break a winning streak, that’s what I am saying.”
“You think if I pray I might die in the next battle?”
“You said yourself that you’ve seen it happen to lots of others. Do you really want to risk it happening to you?”
“You’re winding me up right?”
“No- I am just asking you to think about it.”
“You’re winding me up.”
“All right, I admit it. Do you want to pray or not?”
“I’ve gone off the idea now.”
“Somehow I thought you might.” Strange witchfires burned on the distant hills. It was a long time before the Barbarian dropped off to sleep.
A red dawn burned over the distant hills. A rising cloud of dust announced the presence of the Sardean army. It approached on a long front. Overhead bonded devilwings flapped across the cloudy sky. Batteries of cannon were emplaced on hills near the village of Weswood. A huge mass of infantry deployed onto the plain in the shadow of the guns.
Drums beat, eerie, monotonous, deeper-toned than any marching drum he had ever heard, resonant with strange sorcery. There was something about their noise that set the pit of his stomach to fluttering and made his own heartbeat sound louder in his ears.
Sardec raised a spyglass to his eye, awkwardly because of his hook and focused it on the distant enemy. Dozens of colourful banners rose above the Eastern companies. There were thousands of blue-tunicked Sardeans arranged in regiments but it was what lay between those formations that worried him.
Legions of dead men marched to the beat of those awful drums. Burning eyes glared out of pale faces. Rotting flesh curled away from sere muscle and grinning lipless mouths. The walking dead were unarmed but threatening nonetheless in their sheer alien strangeness.
Oddest of all was the way they were drawn up in ordered ranks. Always before, the restless dead had been nothing more than a mob of hungry, savage monsters, showing no more grasp of discipline than a pack of feral wyrms. These were different. They had the semblance of an army, with cohesion and order. They obeyed a will greater than their own, and it was troubling to think of what might be able to command the obedience of such a gigantic inhuman host.
The stink of rotting flesh left too long in the sun wafted across the space separating the forces and slammed into the nostrils with the force of a punch.
“Looks like we’ve found all the missing deaders,” he heard the Barbarian say.
“They’ve all joined the Sardeans, I notice” said Weasel. There was a note of worry underlying the jocular tone. There was sorcery at work here of a very nasty sort. If even the Foragers, who had encountered dark magic before, felt this worry, it could be having no good effect on the moral of the rest of the Talorean force. How did you fight against an army of the already dead?
Sardec let his gaze move on over the seemingly endless ranks. There were squadrons of cavalry on the flanks near the hills, as far away from the dead men as possible, presumably to avoid spooking the horses. Closer to them were human infantry and massive war wyrms, too stupid to be dismayed by the presence of the magically animated. As far as he could tell none of the beasts had been reanimated themselves.
It was hard to say what the odds were. The actual Sardean army might have been no larger than the Talorean force except for the presence of the walking corpses. Those gave it the appearance of a tidal wave of sorcerously animated flesh that would sweep over the red ranks with irresistible force. His own troops appeared pitifully few compared to the numbers of their enemy.
Sardec did not like this at all. He fought against a feeling of rising hopelessness, wondering of the breeze carried some dispiriting magic along with the stench of rotting bodies. He did not rule out the possibility although he suspected that the simple sight of such unwholesome sorcery was enough to dampen the spirits of any sane creature.
He let out a long breath. Finally the real enemy was in sight. It was relief in its way. Soon the battle to decide the fate of the West would begin.
The headquarters bustled with activity. Azaar and his suite stood on the hills overlooking the battlefield at the centre of a swirling hive of activity. The old General studied his dispositions through a spyglass and calmly gave orders to his adjutants.
Rik watched the armies begin to marshal. The huge formations of the Sardeans lumbered into position, a massive sea of walking dead surging forward in advance of the regiments of the living. Overhead dragons circled. There were at least a score of Sardean ones keeping a watchful distance. Their Talorean counterparts, fifteen strong held formation crucified on the wind above the red line of battle. The monstrous wyrms bellowed challenges that were loud as thunder but above everything sounded the eerie inhuman beat of the alien drums calling the dead to war.
He had heard some of the older Terrarchs complaining about the Army of the Dead. This was not how wars were fought. It was contrary to all the principles of decent warfare. They did not seem to have grasped that someone was in the process of rewriting all those rules with a view to winning a final victory over all opposition, not just acquiring personal glory and renown. It seemed that Terrarchs were learning the lessons of war that humans had known from the very start. He could not bring himself to feel any sympathy but he could not find it in himself to gloat either. He had a vested interest in seeing the Talorean army win this battle and anything that reduced the chance of that happening was not something he could approve of.
Asea was now garbed in full battle gear. Ancient armour made from mobile strips of enchanted leather swathed her form. A liquid silver mask, its forehead bespangled with a glowing gem, shielded her face. In one hand, she held a long white wand carved in strange runes. A lightning lash and a truesilver blade were scabbarded on her belt. Karim stood nearby scanning the area as if some terrible threat might emerge even from the command tent.
Asea was the focus of a lot of attention. Azaar consulted with her often on matters of sorcery and even of strategy, asking her opinion on everything from the strength of the spells cloaking them from enemy diviners to the possibility of Nerghul and other vicious creatures being concealed within the oncoming horde. Rik was close enough to her to catch all of her responses. She replied clearly and concisely when she knew the answer. She let him know when she did not have anything except an opinion. The General and his staff listened respectfully, regardless.
More sorcerers went about their business drawing complex patterns in the wet earth, filling them with coloured sands. A few had already been dispatched to the front line bearing rune-sealed flasks whose contents radiated power even to Rik’s relatively unschooled senses.
The voices whispered their unease to him, and something else. There was something happening over there in the enemy ranks that drew their attention and perhaps something else. Maybe it was like calling to like.
Riders raced into the clearing outside every few minutes bearing new reports from the scouts. Magisters wrote the results of their divinations down on heavy paper, affixed their seals and sent them to the High Command. Messengers on foot brought communication from every part of the vast camp.
Rik felt as out of place as he would have at a Royal ball. He had no place here, no role other than to act as a bodyguard for Asea, and perform whatever small tasks she might allocate to him. Even then, Karim seemed much better trained and far more ready to perform these duties.
He was suddenly all too aware that he was a long way from home and in the presence of an enemy army that might soon overwhelm them. There was a strong possibility that in the next few hours everyone present on this hilltop and every Talorean soldier within hailing distance might well be either dead, captured or a walking corpse. There were no guarantees that any of them would witness many more dawns.
Asea beckoned him over. “Go and make sure Tamara is not up to any mischief,” she said very softly. “Get her out of the cellar and make sure she is ready to go if we have to leave this place in a hurry.”
Her tone was more alarming than the sound of those distant drums. It suggested that she had decided the day was already lost.
A galloper came up from the regimental headquarters bearing his instructions. Sardec broke them and saw that they were simple enough. Hold their position and wait for the enemy to advance and engage. Avoid the undead concentrations if possible. He guessed they were most likely going to be targeted with cannon and sorcery as they moved in.
That made a certain amount of sense. Talorean gunnery was generally held to be superior to Sardean so the Imperials would most likely not be too keen to engage in an artillery duel. Sardec was not so sure about the magical side of things. Normally the Sardeans would hold the upper hand, but Asea was present and she was worth any three normal Magisters at very least. The enemy force had superiority in cavalry and wyrms so that would give them the advantage close in as well and that was without considering the undead.
Sergeant Hef came over and asked for instructions. “We are to form up in the front of the line and wait for the enemy to come to us.”
“Right you are, sir. Does not look like we will have long to wait.”
Rik led Tamara up into the light. As they walked uphill the truesilver chains glittered on her wrists and around her neck. She looked about as happy as Rik felt, which was to say not at all, as she surveyed the battlefield beneath them.
“There are even more walking dead than I expected,” she said, looking into the distance.
“Your friends have been busy.”
“They are no friends of mine. Why are you here? Did you get bored listening to the high muckety mucks giving orders and come over for a chat?”
“Lady Asea asked me to come and check on you.”
“Is she afraid I might eavesdrop on your plans and take them to enemy?”
“Maybe — could you do that?”
Tamara glanced around warningly. There was no one within earshot but that might not mean anything given the number of sorcerers present among both armies. “Only if I could get within earshot of Azaar and had access to have a dozen carrier pigeons and a pen and paper.”
“Cunningly we have not provided you with any of those things.”
“Indeed and thus it is that I have had to content myself with watching the troop deployments and speculating on what my countrymen are up to.”
“Have you come to any conclusions?”
“They are up to nothing good, that is for sure.”
“The profundity of your analysis astonishes me.”
“Men are often surprised by my acumen in matters military.”
“Why did you really come here?”
“Amazing as it doubtless seems to you and as quite frankly astonishing as it seems to me, I told Asea the truth. Those people over there are my enemies. They are the enemies of our entire civilisation, of every living thing on this world unless I miss my guess.”
“And yet your father fought for them.”
She gave him another warning look but he ignored it. He was in a strange mood this evening, full of foreboding and not quite caring about the consequences.
“I do not think my father was sane as most people reckon sanity.
“You have my full agreement there. But you fought for your father for a long time.”
“I suffer from an undue degree of filial piety. I served the Terrarch not his cause.”
“Some would say the two are the same.”
“I can see you are going to be tiresome on this subject, Rik.”
“It’s an unfortunate tendency I have.” They fell into a not uncomfortable silence. Rik studied the battle lines below them. Somewhere down there his friends were preparing to go to fight on what might prove to be the last day of their lives.
“Are you glad you won’t be fighting?” Tamara asked.
“You think I won’t be in combat then? If the Sardeans over-run our boys we’ll all be fighting. I would not be surprised if Asea gives the order to cut your throat if that happens.”
“Will you obey it?”
Rik considered for a moment. He was surprised to find the answer. “No. I would not. I told you that we two should be allies. Karim would do it though.”
“Would you stop him?”
“I am not sure that I could, even if I wanted to. He is a very dangerous man. I should know. He is my weapons tutor.”
“And you are not sure that you would want to stop him anyway?”
“That is so. I don’t mean you any harm, Tamara, but I am not prepared to harm my friends on your behalf either.”
“Thank you for making that clear.”
“Would you do the same for me?”
“Perhaps. At the moment I fear you are my only ally. I burned a lot of bridges when I left Sardea.”
“Asea thinks there may be traps in what you are teaching me.”
“She might be right. All knowledge has its dangers. But if you are asking me whether I am deliberately setting you up for a fall, the answer is no.”
“You would say that anyway.”
“Heads you win, tails I lose. No matter what I say the answer is suspect.”
“Can you blame me for thinking that way?”
“If things go badly, free me, Rik. I might be able to get us both out of here.”
“By your own special route, you mean?” he asked, unwilling to mention her shadow-walking ability.
“I will think about it.”
She smiled and shook her head. “Let us talk of something else. I am rather excited. This will be the first mass battle I have witnessed.”
“It won’t be mine. I fought through the Clockmaker’s rebellion and all the way across Kharadrea.”
“Will it be glorious?” He looked at her face to see if she was being sarcastic. She looked sincere.
“It will be a slaughter-yard.”
“That does not sound like a terribly edifying spectacle.”
“Perhaps if you were a corpse raven or a scavenger devilwing it would be.”
“The poets sing such songs about battles too, of courage and glory and heroism.”
“There will be all of those. There will also be a lot of blood and pain.”
“Those are inevitable in life.”
“True enough. You’d think people would want avoid them when they are needless though, wouldn’t you?”
“You think this battle is needless then?”
It was his turn to shake his head. “I have fought in battles that were, but I doubt this will be one of them. The fate of the world hangs in the balance.”
“People always think that.”
“This time it is true though- it’s not just politicians talking. There’s never been a battle like this before, with the dead walking and the Princes of Shadow waiting on the outcome.”
“Not on this world anyway. There were battles like this on Al’Terra. Your patron must have witnessed a fair few. Your Lord Commander as well.”
“Did they have gunpowder and cannon on Al’Terra?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Then there has never been a battle like this before anywhere.”
“You could be right.”
They both fell silent as they got within earshot of the commander’s suite.
Sardec watched the Sardeans thunder closer. The great tide of walking corpses screened their human infantry. Only the wyrms behind the main force were visible over their heads. Enemy dragons circled. He was glad that there were skywatcher units present, laid out in the traditional chequerboard pattern among the other infantry. It was their job to protect their comrades from aerial assault although their weapons appeared pitiful when measured against the power of the great reptiles.
He offered up a brief prayer, hoping that Rena had taken his advice and fled as far from the battlefield as possible. He did not want her caught by the undead if the Sardeans swept over their position. He pushed thoughts of his woman from his mind. He could not afford them now, if he hoped to survive the day. He would need every faculty concentrated on his own survival and that of his men.
He walked along the front of the line. “Steady, lads,” he bellowed in his best parade ground voice. “Save your shot till they are within range and aim for the heads.”
That was one thing to be grateful for at least. The Foragers were among the best marksmen in the army. They could be relied on to make their shots count. Of course every musket ball used on a walking corpse was one less fired at a living foe. Even if the undead provided only a walking shield to the infantry behind them, they served a crucial purpose in the enemy’s plan.
Cannons boomed on the hills behind them. The ground beneath Sardec’s feet vibrated in time. Clouds of smoke and earth erupted in the Sardean line. Walking corpses were thrown skywards like rag dolls tossed by an angry child but the rest of them came on, following their drums, ignoring the carnage around them in a way that no living man could.
Sardec had to force himself not flinch as cannon balls whizzed overhead. He heard explosions behind him, and the sound of iron being twisted and wood splintered. It looked like the enemy was going in for counter-battery fire, seeking to destroy the Talorean cannons while they concentrated on clearing the undead.
He forced himself to stand tall and proud. The waiting was always the worst part of any battle. Right now there was nothing he could do save stand there and pray he was not hit before he could get to grips with the foe. He had to set an example to the men around him, who had to do the same. This was worst he could ever remember it being, perhaps because of the presence of the walking dead men, perhaps because of the feeling that this was a battle his side could not win.
He pushed those thoughts aside, telling himself it was the evil magic of the booming drums, and tried to judge the distance separating his men from the enemy. It was hard because the land rolled and sometimes the Sardeans vanished below the line of sight but he estimated that it could not be more than three hundred yards now; extreme range for a musket but still within the realms of possibility for shots like the Foragers.
He looked at Sergeant Hef, who looked at Weasel, who nodded. “Foragers only. Fire!” he bellowed. Moments later the first wave of shots tore into the oncoming dead men. Many staggered, a few fell, their heads torn asunder by the heavy shot. Those coming on behind tripped and were trampled but they did not stop. They marched on, inexorable as a glacier, reducing the corpses they trampled to jelly.
Shots continued to ring out as the Foragers kept a hail of fire on the undead. Despite orders other units began to join in, sending a hail of fire tearing into the enemy line. In places the Sardeans stopped, as a wall of corpses built up ahead of them, but the main body of the foe kept coming on, swirling round the islands of bodies, marching ever forward, unstoppable as death.
Rik saw the lines come together. Musket and cannon fire tore great holes in the undead line. Some of the walking corpses simply picked themselves up after being knocked down and came on. Others, legless, dragged themselves along the ground. All of them seemed animated by one terrible implacable will. None of them showed the sort of fear and indecision that a human trooper might after coming under such withering fire.
Volley after volley rang out but still they came on, with the Sardean infantry bringing up their rear and preparing their weapons. The sound of their fifes and marching drums cut through the sound of battle. Over them towered huge wyrms, their howdahs filled with riflemen, trained sharpshooters picking out selected targets.
Now the walking dead tore into the Talorean line and their presence brought terror. It was not just fighting the massed ranks of the undead; it was the terrible threat that you might be infected by their disease, or rise again to fight against your comrades if you went down.
The Sardean artillery had inflicted some damages on the Scarlet cannon, while they had been busy fruitlessly trying to stem the tide of the undead attack. Tamara met his gaze evenly and shrugged. There was nothing to be said. She obviously shared his opinion of the way things were going.
Overhead the Sardean dragons swept forward and their Talorean counterparts rushed to meet them. Massive beasts smashed into each other in a maelstrom of teeth and claws. Two of the great creatures dropped to earth limbs and wings and tails inextricably intertwined. They fell amid the great melee in the centre of the battlefield, crushing men and walking corpses, and continuing to fight even if their riders were dead and their own bodies hopelessly mangled. Their ferocity was appalling.
The Sardean cavalry flowed round the mass of the battle, taking to the wings of the army, threatening to flank the Taloreans. It was a move that Azaar appeared to have anticipated. The guns on the hills opened fire, carving great holes in their ranks, leaving broken and mangled beasts flopping in the bloody mud. The whole right flank of the Sardean cavalry turned and fled but somehow, against all the odds, with the sort of bravery that can turn the course of battles, the cavalry on the left kept going. The Talorean cavalry rushed to intercept them and the two forces smashed together in a clash of sabre and pistol.
Asea chanted and unleashed a salamander from the ancient jars in which she kept them imprisoned. The giant elemental leapt skywards and hurtled into the battle of dragons; swiftly another and then another joined it, until their blaze lit the sky, and meteor-like other elementals rose from the Sardean line to join the fray. Witchfires underlit the clouds as the supernatural creatures smashed into each other.
Rik glared around, feeling trapped and impotent. There was nothing for him to do here. His skills were useless. His sorcery was not strong enough to have any effect on the outcome of the battle, and he was too far away to take an effective part in the fighting. All he could do was wait and act as a bodyguard for Asea, if worst came to the worst.
He kept watching and praying. It was the only thing he could do.
“Stand firm, lads,” Sardec shouted, from beneath the regimental colours. The walking corpses were mere yards away, intermittently visible through the billows of powder smoke. “One last volley and fix bayonets!”
The final blast of musketry sounded like thunder in his ears, and then the men were desperately attaching blades to their musket barrels as the undead closed with them. The Barbarian slung his rifle back over his shoulder and drew his chopping blades, taking up a position near Sardec, Weasel and the Sergeant. Sardec was suddenly glad he was there as the first wave of corpses broke on their position.
He brought his blade down to slash off the arm of a skeletal creature, its skin blotched with mould, that looked like it had been dead for days, and then took off its head with his return thrust. The men had formed up in a defensive ring around him, thrusting with blades, smashing rifle butts into undead heads. Still the monsters came on.
With all the smoke and noise it was difficult to grasp the situation but he guessed that things were not looking good. Even if all the deaders managed to do was pin down his force it was enough. His lads were already fatigued, and the undead were tireless. Behind them were waves of fresh human infantry, led by Terrarch officers and supported by monstrous bridgeback wyrms. All he really got a sense of was that his own side were being pushed back by the sheer numbers of their foes.
Even as that thought occurred to him, he heard the bellows breathing and kettle-whistle shriek of one of the great creatures. The earth shook beneath its tread as it raced forward.
“Disperse, lads!” he shouted, and the formation thinned to let the creature pass. It loomed gigantically out of the sulphur-tainted smoke, five times as tall as Sardec, a man, feet kicking frantically was caught in its beak-like jaws, and then sheared into two halves with a flick of its head.
Sardec lashed out at one columnar leg with his blade, aiming to ham string it. He felt the weapon bite home and then he hurled himself aside to avoid being crushed. Those around him were not so lucky. He saw one man go down beneath an enormous padded foot, when it rose again he was nothing more than a bloody smear.
A musket ball buzzed beside his ear, and the side of his head felt wet. He reached up with the back of his hand and felt blood flow. Looking up he caught sight of musketeers on the howdah on the beast’s back. He could do nothing except bellow at them with impotent rage. The blade in his good hand was useless under the circumstances.
Something caught him a heavy blow on his side. He turned and saw a walking corpse, so close the air billowing from the open wounds in its chest washed over his skin like the breath of a demon in a nightmare. He slashed with his hook, catching the thing across the eyes, blinding it, then punched it in the face with the hilt of his blade, breaking teeth and sending the deader tumbling backwards.
For the next few minutes everything was a chaos of pain, and smoke and blood and blows. He lashed out at any walking dead man within reach, losing all sense of self in his desire to put them down. The futility of the exercise, of trying to kill dead men, only goaded him to greater efforts, frustration fuelling his anger, and his rage fuelling his demented blows.
Glancing around he saw the company colours were down. The Angel of Death lay in the mud, covered in blood and dirt. He strode over and picked them up, looking around for familiar faces and finding none.
“Foragers to me,” he shouted. “To the colours!”
From the mist around him emerged a few scattered shouts. Sergeant Hef emerged from the gloom, blood pouring from a face wound. The Barbarian half supported him while beating at corpse men with his blade. Weasel followed, moving calmly amid the chaos, pausing every now and again to stab a foe with controlled precision of a surgeon wielding a scalpel. Sardec shouted a warning as a mass of walking dead swarmed towards the men. He saw Sergeant Hef go down beneath a pile of animated corpses before he could get the rest of the Foragers to the rescue. He dragged Weasel clear himself with the Barbarian covering their retreat.
From all around came the beating of drums and the sounding of great horns. It felt as if they were surrounded by the enemy as if the great mass of undead had swept by them, and all that was left was for them to face the oncoming enemy infantry.
Sardec knew without having to be told that the battle was lost, and that surrender was not an option. The best they could hope for was to flee for their lives, and hope to fight another day.
The walking dead crashed into the Foragers. Sardec returned to the unequal battle.
Rik watched the Talorean centre collapse. There was no way that human courage could stand against that oncoming tide of corrupt flesh. The infantry did their best but were slowly overwhelmed, as the huge mass of walking corpses broke their line in many places and swirled over them.
Clouds of musket-smoke obscured the battlefield. It became harder and harder to get a sense of what was going on. Now and again the smoke would part and reveal a scene of terrible carnage, in which dead bodies moving and unmoving were intermingled. Even as he watched, he felt a surge of mystical power from the East, and the newly killed started to rise horrifically from the ground. More and more new recruits joined the Sardeans.
Down there it was chaos. Undead in the uniforms of Taloreans were turning on their former comrades, killing them before they even knew what was happening, and they in turn would join the ranks of the enemy. It was devilish and it was all but unstoppable.
Rik moved closer to Asea. He knew the risks of interrupting a sorcerer at work but he felt he had better warn her anyway. She saw him coming and nodded her head.
“I can feel it too,” she said. “Someone is exerting necromantic power all along the line of battle. I am trying to counter it but I fear that the best I can do is slow it down. Please let me be now. I must concentrate.”
The eyes of her silver mask closed. The gem on her forehead blazed brighter, she began to chant something in an alien tongue. Her words echoed strangely, booming out from her metallic lips and then seeming to twist and vanish out of the air, as if the echoed off into some strange dimension at a different angle from reality.
For a moment the strange drumbeats faltered, and the formations of the marching dead stopped, milling around like penned sheep. For a moment, hope flared in Rik’s breast, and he thought that the Taloreans might yet be able to turn the tide of battle. Then he felt the surge of evil power play across the battlefield from some point in the East. There was a brief contest of wills. Asea cried out and her eyes opened once more, this time in shock.
It seemed that she had met a power even stronger than her own. The drums took up their beat once more. The dead men pressed their advantage, and their army started to grow once more. The Talorean centre crumbled. The enemy came ever closer.
Even to Rik’s eye it was obvious that the battle was lost. The Talorean centre had gone, and not even the valiant efforts of the cavalry were going to change that. The Sardean wyrms and the undead soldiers were just too much for the horses. The cavalry officers had already come to that conclusion. They were pulling back to regroup.
Asea looked drained. Her gaze was haunted. She obviously knew as well as he did what was going to happen. He imagined that the possibility of falling into Sardean hands was even less attractive for her than it was for him.
The undead infantry were already at the foot of the hill and were beginning to make their way upward. If they were going to make a break for it, now was the time to do so. He walked over to where she stood, being careful not to break the sorcerous circle.
He took her gently by the arm. “We need to get out of here,” he said softly. “There’s nothing more to be done.”
A desperate look of denial flashed across her face to be swiftly replaced by calm. “I fear you are correct.”
The knowledge had started to percolate through the other mages. They had put down their wands and began to reverse their rituals. A few of them ran towards the tents or simply raced off to grab horses or any other means of escape. The High Command had got the message too. Azaar and his staff had ordered their servants to pack and were now mounting their destriers. Joran and his followers had already left. It was obvious that none of them were going to risk falling into the enemy’s hands if they could help it.
The Sardeans might respect the usual principles of war concerning captured officers but then again they might not. Anybody capable of unleashing the Army of the Dead might be capable of breaking the articles.
“What do you want me to do about Tamara?” Rik asked.
“Bring her with us. We may have need of her services.”
Rik was glad that he had not been given the order to kill his half sister. He was not sure he would have obeyed it.
From below came the sounds of screaming and dying. The battle was over. The killing went on. The Army of the Dead was still recruiting.
Sardec was not entirely sure how they had managed to get clear. All he could remember was running, hiding in ditches and copses of trees and fighting against the walking dead until somehow they were away looking down on the battlefield from the nearby hills, surveying what was obviously the scene of a disaster for the Talorean military.
The dead swarmed below them, numberless as an army of ants, impossible for human effort to stop. They crawled over everything. The broken batteries, the corpses of wyrms and dragons. Elemental light still flickered under the dark clouds. Exhaustion leeched his strength and he bled from a dozen small cuts. He looked at the troops. There were perhaps half a dozen soldiers, a few Foragers and some others who had joined them during the rout.
His shoulders slumped. He felt physically nauseous. Defeat hit him like a blow, more potent even than pain and fatigue. He took an inventory of his gear. He still had his sword. He had lost his pistol somewhere. He had a small pouch of dried meat and a water flask full of spirits.
He glanced at the others- the Barbarian was present, covered in gore, his head bandaged with a strip torn from someone’s tunic. Weasel pulled on his pipe. His face grimy, deep lines of fatigue and worry etched in his face, older than Sardec could ever remember him looking. Toadface was there and Handsome Jan as well but no one else he recognised. He cast his mind back. The last he remembered of Sergeant Hef was seeing the little man disappear beneath a pile of snarling biting corpses.
How had it come to this, he thought? How could the proud army of Talorea have been so comprehensively beaten? The answer seemed clear enough-sorcery and superior numbers. An army poorly supplied, worn out by plague and hunger had simply been overwhelmed by an army that had no need for sleep or food or shelter.
It was not quite that simple. The Sardeans had living warriors too, but they had been sheltered behind a wall of walking corpses. They had been fresh when they entered combat and they had not been near unmanned by the presence of the walking dead. They were allies after all, not foes.
“Sir,” said Weasel
“Yes?” Sardec realised that the humans had been talking to him for a while. He had barely noticed their voices while lost in his own thoughts.
“What do you want us to do?” Sardec fought down his sense of hopelessness. He felt like telling them to do anything they felt like, that none of it mattered now. He took a deep breath and brought the impulse under control. He was a Terrarch officer. Better was expected of him.
One step at a time, he told himself. First things first. They needed to get clear of this place and find shelter for the night. After that they could give thought to what they should do. At least he thought he was with the right men for the job. It was time for the Foragers to forage.
“Let’s get some shelter and some food,” he said, “then we will start looking for a way back to home. Back to the camp and see if we can salvage any gear.”
“The bastards beat us,” said the Barbarian. “I don’t believe it. Maybe we should have prayed Weasel.”
If there ever was a time to pray, thought Sardec, now was it.
Sardec reeled back into what this morning had been their camp. All around were the signs of a hasty departure where people had simply picked up whatever possessions were nearby and turned and fled.
He paused for a moment, and the full magnitude of the defeat washed over him. The camp was lost. The baggage train was lost. The men would have surrendered if there had been anybody to surrender to, but the dead just kept on coming, and there was no alternative but to flee or to fight until your body was dragged down and became part of the attacking horde when it rose.
Desperately he looked around for Rena, searching through the debris of a camp made suddenly strange, looking for the spot where they had slept the night before. It felt now as if that had happened in another lifetime not merely a few hours in the past. At first he saw no sight of her or of any of the other girls or camp followers.
Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of a group of people arguing. One woman was screaming and a bunch of children clustered around her crying. To his surprise he noticed that the Barbarian and Weasel were there as well, talking and gesturing and pointing towards the horizon. Relief surged through Sardec when he saw that Rena was amongst that small group as well.
As he approached a group he saw that the crying woman was Sergeant Hef's wife Marcie and the children were hers. It occurred to him then that there had been a real human cost to the battle today beyond the lives lost. This woman had lost her husband and those children had lost her father. None of which was going to count for much if they were still around when the Sardeans got here.
Rena rushed towards him and threw her arms around him. For once he did not push her away but kissed her hungrily not caring who saw them. It seemed absurd to worry about such things with the world falling into ruin all around them.
"Round up those people! Now!" Sardec shouted to the remaining soldiers. "We've got to get them out of here."
Marcie screamed and struggled. The Barbarian lifted her, still kicking, and tossed her across his shoulder. He told the children to come with him. They danced around him, aiming kicks and punches, having no more effect than if they had attacked a giant wyrm.
"The rest of you have got two minutes to grab what you can," Sardec shouted, "and then we're leaving. Anyone not with us can stay behind and argue with the dead men."
Rena stared at him, as if she'd never seen him before, and he realised that she never had. He was covered in blood and muck and filled with an urgency to get them all out of here before disaster could overtake them completely.
The surviving Foragers shouted their acknowledgements and hustled the camp followers to get ready. In less than two minutes they were heading out of the camp and away from the battlefield, terribly aware of the whoops and howls of the Sardeans soldiers behind them. Sardec shouted at them to keep up the pace. He knew that he had to get as much ground between the survivors and the Sardeans as he could before nightfall.
It was extremely unlikely that any of them would manage to escape but looking at Rena and the children he felt he had to try.
Sardec sat by the camp fire conscious for perhaps the first time in his life of the enormity of defeat. It hung over him like a vast shadow, making its presence felt in the chill of the breeze and the darkness that danced around the flickering embers.
He hoped they had put enough distance between themselves and the battlefield. He had led them northward away from the main track taken by the Talorean staff and all the other retreating soldiers. Any Sardean cavalry would follow the main road in the hopes of overtaking the officers, Generals and the rich pickings of their baggage train.
Rena was still trying to comfort Sergeant Hef's wife. The children sat round the fire, looking bleakly into the embers. Toadface talked with Handsome Jan.
“What do we do now, sir?” asked one of the new men. Sardec had not bothered to learn his name yet. He could not remember whether the man had told him it or not, and to be honest, he did not really care. He knew he should but he could not. All eyes focused on him. Everyone present was looking to him for a lead.
All of them, even Weasel and the Barbarian, normally so self-confident, had a beaten whipped-dog look. He was surprised that those two were still present. He had half-expected them to slope off on their own. But, like the others, they seemed to find some reassurance in numbers. And Sardec did not blame them. At this time he found their familiar faces oddly comforting even though he had never liked the men who owned them.
“We strike West,” he said as confidently as he could, trying not to think of all the long miles that separated them from Halim, let alone the Talorean border. “There will be a garrison there, and most likely reinforcements will have arrived.”
“What good will that do?” asked Handsome Jan. “They won’t be able to stand against the dead any more than we could.”
If you have any more constructive suggestions I will be happy to hear them, Sardec almost said but resisted the temptation. Now was not the time to get into arguments with the men. Now more than ever he needed to maintain his position in their eyes, and provide them with the sort of leadership they would need to get home. “It will get us back into the Queen’s service, soldier, and we will get another chance to throw back those Shadow-worshipping scum.”
There, he had said it, the words they had all feared to mention were out in the open now, and they all knew it. “Do you think the Princes of Shadow have really come, sir?” asked Toadface, licking his fat lips with his obscenely long tongue.
Sardec nodded. “You’ve seen the dead men walking; can you doubt it?”
“They just kept coming,” said the Barbarian. “I’ve never seen dark magic like it, not even when we were below Achenar. And sometimes when they pulled a man down he would get right up and fight alongside them, against his mates and all.”
He said the last as if it were somehow more obscene than the man rising from the dead in the first place. Perhaps to someone with his primitive code of honour, it was. Sardec smiled sourly. For the first time ever he had allowed himself to think that a man like the Barbarian might possess something like honour. It was a measure of how much his thinking on the subject had changed.
“I’m surprised we managed to get away at all,” said Weasel. Sardec was not. If any two men were able to escape from such a situation he and the Barbarian were them. The only other person who Sardec had encountered who equalled their slipperiness was the half-breed Rik. Had he and Asea managed to escape or had the half-breed’s astonishing good luck finally ran out? Sardec wondered if he would ever know.
“Perhaps God is preserving us for a reason,” said one of the newcomers, his eyes fixed on Sardec, begging for confirmation of this. They were all looking for any reassurance in the face of the vast supernatural evil that had reached out and touched their world. Sardec saw no reason to deny them this consolation. After all, who was he to say whether or not it was true? In times like this faith could be a source of strength and they were going to need all the strength they could find.
“Perhaps he has.” All of them were grateful for the words, and Sardec found himself oddly grateful to them for their faith in him. It was reassuring to feel trusted and needed in a time like this. Resolution firmed in his heart that he would not let them down while breath was still in him.
Sardec’s thoughts wandered back to Rena in the ensuing silence. He wished she had not come with the army. What chance did she have of surviving? The weather was getting worse. The walking dead were everywhere, and the Sardean cavalry would scour the countryside to round up survivors.
He shuddered to think what would happen to anyone they found. He had seen the Sardeans sabering any fleeing Taloreans they had encountered. He told himself that it was most likely that they were still filled with the fury and bloodlust of battle, but he had a suspicion that it was more than that, that they had been given orders to do so, to kill and leave the bodies so that they might rise again and follow the dreadful drumbeat to which the armies of the dead marched.
The newcomer’s question came back to haunt him. What could they do in the face of such uncanny sorcery? It was so new and strange and potent, on a scale unlike anything Sardec had yet witnessed. The destruction of the Serpent Tower had been impressive, but it had been a local event, unique, that could and would happen only once, but this was different. Evil magic had reached out and blanketed a nation, and unless he missed his guess it was getting stronger with every day that passed. Perhaps it fed on the deaths of the plague victims or on any deaths at all. Perhaps it really was a harbinger of the end of the world. Perhaps the Light really was passing judgement.
Sardec looked at the soldiers. “I believe we should pray,” he said.
No one disagreed.
The building in which Rik and Asea camped had been a watermill once. The rotting remains of the wheel were still there even though the upper part of the structure had long ago tumbled into the river. The place was defensible and they were unlikely to find a better one in which to camp for the night.
A flame crystal burned in a brass setting in the middle of the main chamber, providing both heat and light by virtue of its magic. Karim produced food and wine from the travelling chests. Tamara sat nearby, still in chains, watching everything with a wary eye.
Rik remembered the nightmare of their flight, as the huge wyrm ploughed through the fleeing soldiers and camp followers blocking the road, like a massive galleon making its way through a swarm of rowboats.
He recalled only too well the looks of shock and suffering on the faces of those they passed, and the despair of those who knew that sometime soon death would overtake them on the road, while the Terrarchs looming above them might still escape. There had been hatred there amidst the despair and Rik could not blame those people for it. He would have felt that way himself in their position.
Asea looked bone weary. Defeat was etched on every line of her face. Tamara did not look much better. She had the appearance of one who thought she had reached sanctuary and found her safe haven a trap. Only Karim looked indifferent to their circumstances but then he always did.
Rik took the bit of beef he had been heating on the point of his dagger and offered it first to Asea and then to Tamara. After both of them had turned it down he began chewing on it himself.
Asea rose and walked around the four corners of the building putting wards into place. Rik felt the slight surge of power as the spell activated. He wondered if the wards’ presence might give them away to any pursuers then dismissed the concept as ludicrous. The presence of a large black bridgeback wyrm outside of the place was all the clue anyone hunting for runaway Terrarchs would need.
Asea sat down once by the heating crystal once more. She was still armoured and looked like a war-goddess from an earlier age.
“I take it things did not go according to plan,” said Tamara. There was a mocking note in her voice, as always. She seemed incapable of keeping it out when she talked to Asea.
“You take it correctly.”
“What now, Milady?” Rik asked to forestall any further sniping. He feared that things would not go well for Tamara, given Asea’s present mood.
Asea considered for a moment. “The power behind the plague is a mighty one. The Army of the Dead is only going to get stronger until the spell is ended and the gateway closed.”
“I would say that is a fair assessment of the situation,” said Tamara. “But somewhat irrelevant.”
“Because we have no way of breaking the spell. Your army was defeated today, Milady, and the armies of the East march towards your homeland.”
“Be that as it may, it does not alter the nature of the problem in the slightest. While the dead march the West cannot win this war. Every casualty is a potential new recruit for our foes. Every loss to our side is doubled.”
Tamara nodded. “I know that as well as you but that was not point. Without your army you have no way of getting to Askander and closing the Gate.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I should think it obvious. All the armies of Sardea lie between you and your destination.”
Asea smiled. “Perhaps not. As you have so astutely pointed out, they will soon sweep on, invincibly, into the West.”
“You cannot be thinking of striking East on your own.”
“Why not? I can do no good here and I may be able to close the Gate in the East.”
“It is guarded.”
“Guards can always be taken by surprise. You of all people should know that. And I doubt our enemies will expect such a bare-faced attack.”
“Presumably because they assume you are not insane.”
Rik stared at Asea. She sounded serious. She really was considering heading East, on her own, to try and close the Gate. Perhaps she had gone mad. It was possible some backlash from today’s sorcery had deranged her.
“You have no chance,” said Tamara.
“I have a tiny chance,” said Asea. “And when you have run out of options, that is better than nothing.”
“I think you might be noticed in your war-gear.”
“There’s always disguise.”
“They will be looking for you.”
“They will be looking for me in the West, with the armies of the West. I doubt they will expect me to go rushing into their territory. Would you?”
Tamara’s smile could almost have been admiring. “No. Because I have always thought you were clever.”
“The Princes of Shadow will come. I have already seen one world lost to them. I will not see another.”
“How will you go?” Rik asked. “The wyrm is a bit conspicuous and we do not have any dragons. Do you know some sorcery that will transport you there?”
“I will go on foot if necessary and I will go soon, for every day that passes our enemy grows stronger, and it may be that they will soon be sufficiently mighty or Talorea may become sufficiently weak for them to overcome us without their undead legions.”
“You underestimated us, didn’t you?” said Tamara quietly.
“Yes,” said Asea.
“It’s not surprising. I did too.”
“Who could have foreseen anything like this, on a world with so much less power available than Al’Terra?”
“The people who planned it did.”
“Yes. They managed to find something that would work even with the full power of their magic unavailable to them. They were devilishly clever.”
“They had centuries to prepare,” said Rik.
“So did we,” said Asea, “but we spent it building an Empire over the humans and fighting among ourselves, and our greatest foes have taken advantage of that. Then again, they always knew how to exploit our weaknesses, and why should they not, for they are just like us in many ways.”
“Does that not mean that you should be able to exploit their weaknesses in return,” said Rik.
“I hope so, for if we do not then civilisation as we know it on this world is doomed and a new age of darkness has begun.”
“Can you close the Gate?” Rik asked.
“I have done so once. I can do it again. I might even be able to destroy it, if I get close enough.”
“How will you do that?”
“I am hoping that you can show me the way.” There was a hint of pleading in the look she gave him.
“I’ll need to think about it.”
She nodded. “Don’t take too long. Every hour counts.”
Rik lay in the gloom of the ruined building. Try as he might and tired as he was he could not get to sleep. Eventually, he rose and made his way up the old stairs to watch the moonlight turn the oily surface of the river to silver. A devilwing or perhaps a large bat moved across the face of the moon. All was quiet save for the rush of the water below.
What was he going to do now? Asea seemed determined to throw away her life so he was about to lose his patron. The vision of wealth and privilege that had been so briefly dangled before his eyes evaporated like morning mist in the rays of the sun.
The followers of the Princes of Shadow were going to take over the world, and use humanity as their cattle and the undead as their fist. He saw no reason to doubt that. It was what his father would have done, and Malkior seemed a not untypical representative of the Princes and their servants.
He thought of the world wracked by plague, with humans raised to be devoured by a new generation of masters far worse than even the Terrarchs had been. It made him angry and the most frustrating thing was that his anger counted for nothing. It never had and it never would. The powerful would get on with what they wanted without any regard to the way people like him felt. It was simply the way the world was made.
The anger burned in his gut, warming him like a potent spirit. For a moment, he thought he understood what Asea intended to do. She would defy fate and the Princes of Shadow and attempt to change the way history wanted to be written. Even though she knew she had very little chance she was prepared to take the risk anyway. The alternative for her as much as for him was to flee or do nothing, and she was choosing not to do either. It was admirable in its way, even if it was foolish.
What was he going to do? Perhaps, he should go with her. She had helped look after him, and he should help look after her. He had nothing left to go back to.
Did that really mean he had to throw away his life though? The truth was that his life was most likely thrown away anyway. He was known to be of Asea’s party and he doubted that the Princes of Shadow would be any more forgiving of their enemies than the usual run of Terrarchs. He could hide but the chances were that he would be run down eventually. Even if he was not, all he could look forward to was a lifetime of skulking and fear.
At least it would be a life. Accompanying Asea would be suicide.
Ah, but if she succeeded, he would be famous. What were the chances of that though? Vanishingly small, but he had succeeded against such odds before. Perhaps he could do so again.
The thought began to take hold of him, although the voices protested. They did not want to lose their last toehold on life, terrible though it might be. Their whining pushed him in the opposite direction. He was tempted to go with Asea just to show that he was still master of his life, not their puppet and vessel.
He told himself to sleep on it, make no hasty decision, but he knew that in some strange way his choice was already made.
Sardec studied the compass then the angle of the sunrise. By his calculations if they headed directly south they would encounter the main road. They would also encounter the triumphant Sardean army and its outriders which seemed like something to be avoided at all costs.
He looked at Weasel and the Barbarian. They had just come back from trapping breakfast. They brought with them a brace of rabbits and a bunch of edible roots and herbs and set about cooking them in their small military issue mess cans. Sardec was grateful for their skills. He could not have provided for himself with such efficiency, given the fact that he had a hook instead of a hand.
Small droplets of rain kissed his face, and a drizzle began. A mournful wind blew through the tree branches that so exactly matched the expressions on the faces surrounding him that he almost laughed.
“The heavens weep,” said Handsome Jan.
“As well they might,” added Toadface.
“We’re not dead yet,” said Sardec allowing a tone of warning to show in his voice.
“And even if we were we might not rest easy,” added Weasel. He sounded more thoughtful than mocking.
“We’ve got food, and vodka and some shelter,” said the Barbarian. “Things could be worse.”
“We’ve got bullets and blades as well,” said Sardec, “and we know how to use them. Let’s be grateful for that.”
“I’ll feel a lot more grateful when I’ve had some of that vodka the Barbarian is preaching about,” said Weasel.
“Drink it down,” said Sardec, “and then get ready to move out.”
“It’s my bloody vodka,” said the Barbarian.
Sardec looked over at where the children slept. Rena lay by them, looking just as innocent in sleep. It was only now that he realised how exhausted she must be. All of them were. The defeat and flight had drained them more than the long march and the strange weather was making things worse. He had never known a spring this cold.
What would become of them, he wondered? Would they ever manage to get home? Or would they all die on the long march? There was no way of knowing but they had to do something. Anything was better than simply waiting here for death to come.
He took an inventory of his resources. There were about ten surviving Foragers, four of them veterans that he could trust: Weasel, the Barbarian, Toadface and Handsome Jan. There was Rena, Sergeant Hef's wife and four children. It seemed like they would only slow the soldiers down but Sardec was not going to abandon them. He smiled sourly. There had been a time when he would not have hesitated for a moment to sacrifice a score of human children to ensure the safety of one Terrarch, particularly if that Terrarch was him. Times had certainly changed.
He looked at the sky. The clouds were dark and ominous and tinged with strange supernatural colours that that spoke of wicked magic being cast somewhere. He wondered where Asea was and Rik and Lord Azaar were. He could certainly do with their supernatural knowledge now, or even Asea's leadership to give him some clue as to what to do.
The whole vast structure of the Western armies had suddenly vanished, leaving him abandoned and alone. He had led units before but always there had been the sure and certain knowledge that there was something to come back to and a hierarchy to give him guidance and orders. All of that had disintegrated, vanished overnight in the face of the ominous power of the armies of the dead. It came to him then that perhaps there was no one left to give him orders, that he was on his own and entirely responsible for the survival of everyone under his command.
Was it all worthwhile, trying to be a soldier in an army that no longer existed? Was he fooling anybody, pretending to be an officer now? Surely all the humans could see that he was part of an officer corps that had led them only to destruction and defeat.
He studied the faces of the men around him and saw no trace of those thoughts there. They looked at him as if he was still in charge and as if they expected him to give them sensible orders. That seemed like a joke. How was it possible to give sensible orders in a world gone mad?
He pulled himself to his feet and walked around. He checked to make sure that everyone had some rations and enough water to at least see them through the day. He got the men to count the number of bullets they had and tell them how much powder they were carrying, and he was shocked to find that there was so little. There was no Quartermaster here to resupply them, and no way of telling when they would next be able to refurbish their supplies. The situation looked pretty desperate but there was nothing he could do about it so he pushed the thought to one side.
He made sure that the children had eaten and that the women got something too, and then he ordered everyone to their feet and told them that they needed to move out. He was not entirely sure where they were going to go but he knew they must get moving.
It would be best to keep away from the road for a while. Less chance of meeting enemy scouts even if the march was harder. Rena came over and stood beside him. He was glad that she had not tried to hug him or take his hand. It would not do to show too much intimacy in front of the men. He smiled again. As if such things muttered under the circumstances.
"Where shall we go?" she asked.
"We'll head North and then eventually strike due West and aim for Halim. Hopefully we can join the garrison there and if we can't, we'll head for the mountains."
"I'm glad you're still alive," Rena said. "I'm glad you found me."
"I am too. You've no idea how much." He took her hand then, not caring who saw it or what they thought. For a brief shining moment, he felt happy, which he found strange considering that he was standing in the ruins of a world. For a moment he felt hopeful, as if something good might eventually come out of all this destruction, even if it was only his ability to show his feelings to the woman he loved. Then he thought about the huge army of undead monsters and the moment passed vanishing like the warmth of a sun passing behind a cloud.
Weasel came over and stood in front of them. He showed no signs of having noticed the fact that they were holding hands. "I think we'd best be going, sir. I think I can see something moving along those ridges behind us and judging from the numbers and the speed with which their moving, I'm guessing it’s some deaders."
"Thank you, Weasel. You're the Sergeant now. At least until we can rejoin the army." Sardec have expected Weasel to grin but he didn't. He looked solemn and his shoulders slumped a little as if the new responsibility pressed down on him.
"Thank you, sir. You're showing a lot of faith. I'll try and not let you down."
"I'm sure you won't. I'm counting on you to back me up. I'll need that if we are all going to get home alive."
“I think we’re going to need more than that, sir, but we’ll do what we can with what we’ve got.”
“That we will, Sergeant. That we will.”
As the sun rose, Asea sorted out her gear. She set Karim to burying the things she could not take: the elemental flasks, the chests full of magical paraphernalia, the exotic weaponry usable only by a mage. Her hair she clipped short and she wore a soldier’s tunic and britches. She looked surprisingly convincing as a Terrarch officer. Such gear as she could carry she put in a holdall.
“What now?” she asked Rik.
“I am going with you.”
“Are you sure you want to do that?”
“You will need someone who knows what they are doing to keep you out of trouble.”
“I can see how your skills would be useful.”
“I want to come with you as well,” said Tamara.
“Why should we allow that?”
“Because my knowledge of Sardea is greater than yours. Because I know how to get where you want to go. Because I have skills that will help keep you alive on your travels. And not the least because we are on the same side.”
“Are we?” Asea asked.
“We share enemies.”
“That is not the same side.” Rik glanced between the two Terrarch women. Hostility bristled in the air, ancient and instinctive. They were not two people who could ever like each other. If Tamara could be trusted she would be an invaluable ally, for all the reasons she had outlined and more. She could teach him things about the powers he had been born with. And that might help keep him and Asea alive.
“I think we should take her with us.”
“I am not sure I trust her.”
“She will be always within reach. You can kill her if she betrays us.”
“I will not betray you.”
“She might be recognised.”
“So might you and she has the skill to conceal herself, and you too, should you choose to use it. I can testify that her talent for disguise is a formidable one.” Asea lifted an eyebrow, and Rik suspected that at some point he was going to have to explain that last remark. There was no help for it now. He wanted Tamara to come with them. She was a trained Shadowblood assassin. That had to be useful on a mission like this. “Her skills increase our chances of success. Given the odds against us, surely that is the most important consideration.”
Asea appeared to consider this for a long time. Eventually she shrugged her shoulders and said, “Very well, but be warned, at the first sign of treachery, Tamara, you die.”
Tamara’s smile was icy. “There’s a good chance I am going to die anyway.”
Rik wished that he could disagree with that statement. He was sorry that she had made it. He was already having second thoughts about the wisdom of accompanying Asea but he was committed now. The voices screamed in protest. He told them to be silent. If things got really bad, he could always flee later.
By then it might be too late, they chorused back.
“You’ll have to remove these chains if I am to go with you,” Tamara said. “People might find the sight of you travelling with someone bound with truesilver a tad suspicious.”
Asea considered this for a moment, then nodded to Karim. He opened the locks and they waited expectantly as Tamara stepped from her fetters. They stood frozen as if expecting violence.
Tamara smiled and said, “When do we go?”
“Now,” said Asea, and picking up her pack she set off towards the East.
Rik sat by the roadside, his back against a tree-trunk. He felt exhausted and frustrated. Tamara and Karim sparred with their fists, both fast and deadly and seemingly well matched. Both were holding something back, he could tell. Neither wanted the other to know the full extent of their abilities. Still it was an education just watching them.
Tamara had kept him practising her strange sorcery for hours as they marched eastwards through the deserted lands of Eastern Kharadrea. He never seemed to be able to get it quite right. Sometimes he felt on the verge of sensing something, a vague foreboding, the slightest of premonitions, the feather touch of some sixth sense that registered the appearance of a shadow-walker.
Tamara feinted a blow at Karim’s head with the side of her fist. He ducked it and swept her legs out from under her. Tamara flipped back onto her feet, lithe as a cat. Beyond the pair Asea watched keenly, as if she might perhaps be able to divine the future in their ritual conflict.
Rik thought about the exercises. They were dull but essential. Being bored under these circumstances was not really possible. He loved sorcery and he loved the possibility of learning some new form of it. He felt as if he stood on the edge of some great sea in and beyond which lay knowledge and power. Just being there and looking out at it was exciting in exactly the same way standing by the ocean was. Out there might be monsters but there was also adventure and possibly riches.
Tamara launched a kick at Karim’s midriff. The man stepped to one side, and launched a blow at her head. She caught his arm, and threw him, bringing herself around to land on top. He rolled to one side, avoiding the blow.
Rik asked himself where he thought he was going with all this. He was slowly painstakingly acquiring a mass of knowledge for the possession of which the Inquisition would gladly burn him and which would cause most sane men to turn their faces from him if they suspected. There were times when he wondered whether he was sane any more, or whether he had gone mad a long time ago- when he had devoured the Quan or perhaps before. Not that it mattered much. He was determined now to walk this path to the end wherever it might take him.
He was starting to think that if he could combine the knowledge Asea had given him with that which Tamara was teaching him that he might be able to create something new or find a way to walk his own path and be a power in the world. It was exciting and frightening all at once and it made him feel alive in a way that nothing else did.
Tamara laughed and rose into a fighting crouch. Karim faced her, expressionless as always. Wary and coiled to respond to any threat, the two stood motionless as statues.
“Enough,” said Asea. “Save your energies for the march.”
Asea gestured for him to get up and start walking again. She seemed tireless as one of the walking dead, an automaton with but one purpose, to get them to their destination and confront their ultimate enemy. There was a wildness in her eyes that Rik did not like, but he was committed to helping her to her goal.
He pulled himself to his feet, and began to trudge along the road.
Sardec sat on the well-painted fence and surveyed the landscape around him. The sun shone brightly. There were no clouds in the sky and no sense of threat in the air. A little over a week after the defeat at Weswood, it was if the battle had never happened. Everything seemed utterly tranquil.
The place had once been an orchard. The inhabitants had been calm, orderly sort of people. Sardec could tell that from the way things were laid out. Even though the house was abandoned it gave the impression that the occupants had left the place in a measured way, without panic. The Barbarian had already pronounced the place empty. The Foragers had made camp within the building. Rena had gone to join them. She and Marcie were searching for food down in the cellars now.
There were berries on the hedges that Weasel picked for the children, filling his cap with the blue fruit, occasionally proffering a choice morsel to Marcie's youngest child, sometimes throwing them into the air and catching them in his mouth.
If he had not known differently, Sardec would never have suspected from the view that only a few leagues away, monsters walked the earth and the dead had risen from the graves. This place seemed peaceful and, for a moment, he felt that it was an oasis where they might remain unmolested if they so chose. He pushed the illusion aside. There was no safety in this world anymore. Plague and evil sorcery had seen to that.
Marcie's eldest boy approached with his hands outstretched. For a moment Sardec wondered why the boy was begging and then he realised that the child was offering him something. There were berries in his hands. Sardec almost refused but he saw the fear and embarrassment on the boy's face and realised that it had taken courage and a generous impulse for the lad to come forward under the circumstances. He helped himself to a berry and munched it down savouring the sweet taste. The boy watched him expectantly as he ate. He was waiting for Sardec to say something.
“Good,” said Sardec. “Very good. What is your name, lad?”
“Daved, sir,” said the boy, running his hand through his thick mop of curly black hair. There was something about his expression that irresistibly reminded Sardec of Sergeant Hef. It must have been the set of the features and the cast of the eye for the boy really did not resemble his father at all. He was already taller. He must have got his size from his mother.
“Do you think my father is still alive, sir? Do you think he got away like us?”
Of course, that was why the boy had summoned up the courage to approach him. A sudden pang of guilt stabbed him. This boy’s father was dead. Sardec had failed him as he had failed so many others. The boy’s intense gaze never left him and though he did not mean to accuse Sardec there was still accusation in it.
He did not know what to say. He had seen Sergeant Hef fall with his own eyes and he did not want to lie about it but there was something so pathetically hopeful about the boy’s look that he could not bring himself to speak the truth either. “I don’t know, lad.”
“He survived many a battle, my father, sir. He always told us that before he went into a fight. He also always told us that if anything happened to him I was to look after my mother and the other children and that’s what I intend to do, sir.”
There was a catch in the boy’s voice and he looked as if it was about to cry. Sardec was not sure why it moved him so much. The boy was only human after all, just like his father had been. It came to Sardec in that moment that he had relied on the father quite as much as this boy had and he just never realised that until this moment. “I’m sure your father will be proud of you.”
“Somebody needs to do it, sir. My mother tries her best but she can’t be everywhere at once and someone needs to keep an eye on Alan, Jana and Lorraine.”
“Is that what your brothers and sisters are called?”
“Yes, sir. Jana is ten. Alan is seven and Lorraine is five. I am the oldest.”
“How old are you, lad?”
Sardec noticed that he had not mentioned the other children, the ones who were missing and presumably dead. He had picked up that habit from the soldiers. It was only to be expected, he was a soldier’s child. “Do you think your brother and sisters might want some berries?”
“I am sure they do, sir, but I thought you should have first pick. You are a Terrarch and our leader.”
It was interesting the order he chose to put the words. Obviously respect for the Elder Race had been impressed on the boy. Sardec smiled and said, “I thank you. But now I have had my pick and I think you should share with your family.”
The boy nodded, bowed politely and scampered off. A hand fell on Sardec’s shoulder and he turned and saw Rena smiling down on him. “That was a good thing to do.”
He felt vaguely embarrassed that she had witnessed it, as he always did when he varied from the pattern of Terrarch behaviour that had been drummed into him when he was young. He was not sure his actions had been entirely seemly. He laughed out loud. The world was ending. The dead were rising and he was worried about whether his behaviour was appropriate.
“You should laugh more,” she said. “It suits you.”
“I would if I had more to laugh about,” he said.
“I am tired of walking,” said Tamara, staring at the approaching coach. Rick could not blame her for that. After a week of walking, and hiding from patrols and eluding the walking dead, he was tired too. He doubted that the coach driver would stop for them though, he was most likely scared. Aside from soldiers, they had seen very few people on the roads. Those people they had talked to had been frightened almost beyond measure. Rumours of what was happening in the capital and to the West had filled even the Sardean population with fear.
Rumours abounded and nothing was certain. There had been talk of a coup in Askander. After an attempt on the Prime Minister’s life, martial law had been declared and Xephan ruled directly in the name of the Empress. There had been tales that he had taken over the throne himself and that the Empress was imprisoned in the dungeons beneath the Palace. And other tales spoke of dark magic and sinister necromancy used to promote his power. Nobody seemed to know anything for certain.
Asea stepped out into the middle of the road and gestured for the driver to stop. He never even slowed down but kept coming directly at her, obviously intending to ride her down if she did not get out of the way. Asea never flinched. She raised her hands and muttered a word of power. The horses reared and for a moment it looked like the coach would go out of control and topple off the road. Instead it came to a juddering halt and Rik, Karim and Tamara raced forward. The coachman and the other servants sitting on top of the vehicle were swiftly overcome. The passengers were hauled out unceremoniously and made to kneel in the dirt. They consisted of two very well-dressed Terrarchs and an extravagantly dressed servant.
“What have we here?” asked Tamara. “I do believe it’s Lord and Lady Inglis. You’re a long way from home.”
The male Terrarch looked up in surprise at the sound of her voice. “Is that you, Lady Tamara? Why are you dressed like a common ruffian? And why are you impeding our progress towards the capital?”
Tamara smiled her dazzling smile. “It’s a very long story, my Lord, and I don’t have time to tell it. Suffice to say that I have greater need of your vehicle then you do. And I am requisitioning it for military purposes.”
“You can’t do that, Lady Tamara,” said Lady Inglis. “We have been summoned to Court. All of the higher nobility have. On pain of death or being outlawed as a traitor like yourself.”
Tamara’s smile did not flicker. “I have been declared an outlaw?”
“A traitor, Lady Tamara,” said Lord Inglis.
“I’m sure it’s an unfortunate misunderstanding,” said his wife. “I’m sure no daughter of Lord Malkior could be a traitor to the realm.”
“May we rise, my dear,” said Lord Inglis. “It’s very uncomfortable here, on my knees in the dirt.”
“Who are these two Terrarchs with you?” said Lady Inglis. “I’m not sure I recognise them either. Are they in disguise like you?”
“Why have you been summoned to Askander?” Asea asked.
“I’m afraid that we are wanted as hostages. It seems the Prime Minister has found resurrecting that old custom necessary after the attempt on his life. An attempt that you have been implicated in, Lady Tamara, as I’m sure you’re aware.” Lord Inglis sounded a little hostile now.
“It sounds like there has been a coup,” said Asea.
“I’ve heard it said that our dear Prime Minister has designs upon the throne himself. He intends to marry the Empress and after that no doubt she will have an unfortunate accident, if she refuses to do what he asks. So my sister wrote me in her last letter. We haven’t heard from her since then. Maybe she’s disappeared into the dungeons like so many others.” Lady Inglis sounded outraged. Doubtless she thought that only the humans should disappear into dungeons not Terrarch noblewomen.
“What exactly do you need a coach for, Lady Tamara,” asked Lord Inglis. “What mission are you on? If I may be permitted to ask.”
“If you must know, I’m on my way to the capital to finish the job I started. I fear the Prime Minister has gone a little above himself and needs to be cut down to size.”
“You mean you intend to kill him. And I suppose you intend to kill us now.”
“I’m afraid so,” said Tamara.
“I don’t suppose it would be any good if I gave you my word to say nothing of this to anyone.”
Tamara shook her head. “You might encounter people on the road who were curious as to why you did not have a coach and they might ask you questions to which you might not be able to provide good answers. And they might ask you those questions in such a way that you would have little choice but to answer them.”
“Surely you can spare my wife and servants. They have done nothing to you.”
“Neither have you, Lord Inglis. It’s just one of those unfortunate things.”
She moved so suddenly that even Rik was taken by surprise and within a heartbeat the two Terrarchs lay headless in the dust. A few heartbeats later their servants joined them in death.
Tamara looked down on the corpses, shaking her head sadly. “I always liked Lord Inglis. He was very kind to me when I was a girl. Always gave me sweets.”
“Karim will drive us,” said Asea. “We have to go.”
"I don't think the children should see this, sir," said Weasel. He indicated the tumbled down remains of the village behind him with one large, knobbly knuckled hand. It was silent but there was nothing about it that looked particularly unusual when compared to all of the other ruined villages and homesteads they had passed through in the last few days. That combined with Weasel’s reaction to it made Sardec nervous.
The former poacher looked tired and he had a haunted look in his eyes. Things would have to be bad for Weasel to look like this. He was a man who had seen horrors enough in his life and it would take something very nasty to make him queasy. Sardec might have thought it was simply the cumulative effect of all they had witnessed but the Barbarian loomed behind Weasel, nodding his head in agreement. He looked a little sick which made Sardec think that he really did not want to look upon what they had seen.
Rena and the others looked at them nervously. Lorraine clung to her mother’s skirts. The boys looked nervous. Something of the two men’s mood communicated to the rest of the soldiers for they looked grim. Sardec nodded towards a clump of trees and the two scouts followed him there, out of hearing of the rest of their small party. "What is it? What did you find?"
"One of the buildings in the village was a Temple School," said Weasel. "It was probably a place where they took in orphan children. There were a lot of small corpses."
"Any of them walking?" Sardec asked.
Weasel shook his head. "None that I could see but I suspect a few of the pupils are missing."
"You think they could be waiting for us in the village?"
"They might be but I don't think so. I think we would have seen them or heard them by now."
"So where are they?"
"Where do they all go, sir?"
Sardec thought about it. Weasel was not being insolent. Sardec knew what he meant. Something was summoning the plague victims, drawing them to the Sardean armies, swelling of the regiments of the dead. Most of the towns and villages they had passed through had been empty. There were corpses left rotting in the streets but always less than there should have been for places of that size. It sometimes seemed to Sardec that soon the walking dead would outnumber the living.
An image danced in his mind of a world full of cities populated by the dead, and roads filled with walking corpses, of dead nobles and farms where the living were raised as recruits for the armies of the dead. He pushed it to one side and studied the soldiers' faces. A question occurred to him. “Why do some of the dead rise, and others not?”
“If I knew the answer to that, sir, I would be a wizard not a soldier,” Weasel replied.
“Let’s get out of here,” Sardec said. “We’ll circle around the village.”
Morbid curiosity filled his mind. "What did you see in there that horrified you so?"
"Lots of the children's corpses had been half eaten," said Weasel. "Some of their eyes had been scooped out like grapes taken for dessert."
Sardec tried not to think about that.
Rik heard Karim shouting at the horses and flicking his whip to urge their stolen coach on over the muddy road. He caught a glimpse of his reflection in the glass window of the coach. Something alien gleamed in his eyes, something sinister and hungry.
He studied the two women with him and wondered how it was possible that they could be so composed. Asea seemed pensive. She had withdrawn into herself as if seeking answers that could only be found in her own consciousness. Tamara noticed him looking at her and smiled, as gaily as a girl going on a picnic. She gave no sign that they were travelling through a land in which she was a wanted traitor. Perhaps their success in getting so far had made her overconfident.
Throughout the entire last stage of their journey, no one had questioned them which surprised him, although he supposed it should not. They were Terrarchs garbed as Terrarchs and the humans of the East had long ago had all desire to question their betters whipped and knouted out of them. They had met a few military couriers on the road, and occasionally seen the carriages of nobles far off and withdrawn from the roads.
The land altered, became flatter, and split by many broad rivers. Here and there huge dark forests loomed against the horizon. The sky seemed lower and wider to Rik although he could not say exactly why. Perhaps it was the grey clouds that filled it, hanging lower than any he had ever seen.
“It’s like the far North,” said Asea. “The islands there have skies like this, but it’s been a long time since I’ve seen anything like this in the south.”
“You think the weather patterns are changing,” Tamara asked. “Or do you think this is the product of some sorcery of Xephan’s?”
“Using the power of a Gate can alter the weather patterns,” said Asea. “Some say it’s because the Gate affects the geomancy of the land, others that some Gates suck air in, or breathe cold air out.”
“What do you think?” Rik asked.
“It’s some combination of all of three. The flow of magical energies has many surprising side-effects. It can seed clouds making them rain, or cause lightning storms and tornadoes and worse things. And I’ve seen Gates that connected lowlands and mountain heights and when they were opened they always breathed condensation and caused stiff breezes to blow around them.”
“You think the Gate is being opened then?” She nodded.
“I think it’s being tapped to raise the Army of the Dead. It’s the only thing I can think of, other than mass sacrifice that could do that, and there’s no evidence of mass sacrifice unless the plague is that.”
“So you are saying that if the Gate is not closed things will get much worse.”
“I believe so, but I think we need to get close enough to find out.”
Rik was not sure he liked the idea of getting that close to such a dangerous thing, but he saw no way around it if he was going to accompany Asea and Tamara.
“You really think you will be able to close the Gate if it’s been opened?” Tamara asked.
“I think that I am going to have to try. The alternative is to simply have a portal through which the Princes of Shadow can come and go at will.”
“I think you are missing the point,” said Rik. “Someone already seems to have mastered that trick.”
After that they travelled in silence for the rest of the day.
The Foragers paused for a moment by a roadside shrine. It was small, built from dry stone and the altar was merely some pieces of slate with sacred runes carved on them. Sardec recognised a few Elder Signs.
They had been marching along an old drover's path through the hills for a few days now. The landscape around them was barren. Every now and again they would see an occasional goat and Weasel's long rifle would roar and shoot sparks and the animal would fall and they would have some more food for the pot. The stringy beasts were not enough to feed the whole party well but they supplemented their meagre rations.
All of them looked hungry now and much thinner than they had when they set out. Sardec would not have believed that possible a few days ago but he did now. Weasel looked like a walking skeleton. He had been giving his rations to Lorraine and the other children. That too had come as a surprise to Sardec, for he'd always thought of Weasel as a very selfish man.
He could tell that a small party were getting more and more tired. Several of them coughed and many of them had blotchy skins that hinted at the onset of plague.
Despair struck at Sardec. If the plague was really among them, there was nothing he could do. He knew no healing magic and he had no knowledge of medicine. Not that that had proved of any avail. Rena was one of those who had begun to show symptoms. Sardec did not know what he would do if anything happened to her. Two of the children, Alan and Lorraine were also sick. The Barbarian carried the boy on his shoulders and Marcie carried the girl on her back. A couple of the soldiers had begun to lag behind, enfeebled by their incipient illness.
Their companions had begun to stare at them and there had been some muttering about leaving them behind in case they infected those who were not sick. In theory, Sardec knew that those who said that were right but he also knew that if he listened to them he would have to abandon Rena and the children and he was not prepared to do that.
They were not part of an army any more. They were just a small group of people trying to find their way to safety through enemy territory and awful events.
“Where do we go now, sir?” Toadface asked.
Sardec came to a decision. “We need to head down onto the plains, see if we can find an apothecary or a wizard to help us.”
Toadface looked at him in disbelief but said nothing. Clearly he thought the same thing as Sardec. Alchemy and magic had not helped with the plague in the past. Why should it help now? Sardec gestured for the soldiers to start moving again.
He stopped for a moment in front of the shrine and drew the Elder Signs in the air over his breast. He prayed to the light to help them with a fervency that he had not done since he was a boy.
If the Light heard him, it gave no sign.
Looking out through the windows of their stolen coach, Rik studied the passing landscape. The style of the buildings had changed. Their roofs were flatter, and more of the peasant houses had turf walls and sometimes turf roofs as well. There were more blockhouses and often the villages were surrounded by wooden palisades, made from sharpened logs. Most of the villages seemed empty of young men, with only old peasants, women and children left behind.
Conscription, Tamara told them. Every able bodied serf had been pressed into service. Normally a certain percentage was exempt or could buy exemptions, but not this time. It was a mark of how seriously this war was being taken. This was to be the final conflict between East and West. Many of the peasants thought that the end of the world was upon them and that soon the Saints would come to judge humanity and send the deserving to the Light and the wicked to the Shadow.
Rik could understand how they could think that. The undead were everywhere, and more and more people were dying every day. Those that were not burned would often rise again and lope off into the West seeking to answer some dreadful summons. The plague was not sparing the Sardeans but so far it had only struck humans. He wondered if he would prove to be immune. That would be the true test of his Terrarch heritage.
He had heard so much of the suspicion of the Sardeans for outsiders that he was surprised how easy their progress had been. They were not challenged as they moved through the vast empty plains, and the few living souls that saw them tended to avoid them as much as they themselves tried to avoid other people. It was as if a whole nation shuddered with fear and shame, and sought to avoid the company of others for fear of its mark becoming visible on their brow.
There were things he saw that sometimes moved him to wonder: vast rivers crossed by wooden bridges along which monstrous barges sailed, doubtless bearing supplies to the armies marching West; ancient towns whose temple spires seemed like lances aimed at heaven. Sometimes the sound of distant hymns and bells drifted on the wind, ghostly reminders that there will still godly people in the world, even if their worship took a different form from the one in which he himself had been brought up in.
Once they came across a madman standing at a crossroads ranting at them and accusing them of being dead. He thought himself the only living man left in the world, and they ghosts come to torment him. From his ravings Rik worked out that the plague had struck here in Sardea and recently. Its effects had not been limited merely to Taloreans and Kharadreans. It was not some scourge of the Eastern God sent to scour the earth of heretics. It was something stranger and more vile, a disease used as a weapon by beings who did not care how many they killed, for whom mass death was only part of the process that would leave them in possession of a world, and able to remake it in their own image.
When Rik thought about that, he found hot searing hate in his heart. What sort of people would do this, he wondered? And the answer that came back was not reassuring; people so certain of their fitness to own the world that they would take any steps to make it so. In some ways such thinking was the logical extension of the doctrine that gave the Terrarchs the right to rule over humanity. People might choose to attribute such things to the Princes of Shadow and the power they served, but he knew that the possibility of such actions was bred into every Terrarch and quite possibly every human as well, if only they had the power.
As they travelled Tamara had continued to school him in the basics of the Shadowblood’s art, while Asea listened with a mixture of wariness and fascination. She had a professional’s interest in all forms of magic, and had most likely rarely had the chance to study something so far outside her range of proficiency. And Tamara was a good teacher; patient, calm and with a gift for expounding her points clearly.
Rik found her fascinating company, a charming, witty and intelligent woman with something haunted in her eyes and ferocious in her manner. There were times when he felt sure that this too was not just another mask, when he saw the cruelty that was in her when she spoke of the peasants and humans, or when she became again the giddy young Lady from the East. Perhaps it was simply that she had a multitude of people in her, that they were all facets of her personality which sparkled depending on which one was in the ascendant.
It was something he could sympathise with. The voices whispered within him, hungrily. The more he learned of shadow magic, the more they did that.
Sardec did not like the look of things. Some of the children were coughing and feverish. Rena looked pale and far more sweat beaded her forehead than even the hard route through the hills called for. Toadface too looked weak, shuffling along like an old man with the ague. A few other soldiers looked in a bad way. They’d been walking for days now and they did not seem to have made any progress.
“What do you think?” Sardec asked Weasel. He had taken him to one side, off the track so that no one could overhear their conversation. He knew what was on everyone’s mind, but no one was prepared to say it.
“Doesn’t look good, sir. Half the force is sickening and I don’t think it’s with the flux. They’re showing the symptoms of the plague. I would not be surprised if they broke out in spots soon. After that we might be burning a few corpses or else be looking at planting a few dead men.”
Sardec nodded grimly. That exactly agreed with his own assessment of the situation. He did not see that there was anything to be done about it. If Asea had been here, he would have asked her to try her magic, but she was not, and there was no sense in wishing otherwise.
“We’re running short of food as well, sir. The Barbarian and me are doing our best, but game is scarce and these hills are pretty barren. It would be hard enough to feed half-a-dozen of us on what we get let alone this whole crew. If we had some of the old Foragers with us we might do a bit better but some of the new lads are not so good at scrounging and the kids and the women are no use at all.”
“You’re not suggesting we abandon them, are you?” Weasel shrugged.
“It’s more of a choice between them starving quick or starving slow, in any case. Hunger will be like torture for them if we don’t get more supplies soon. There’s no way around it, sir.”
“You said there’s a town not too far from here.”
“The Barbarian spotted it when we were scouting this morning. Place looks dead and it would not surprise me to find corpses walking in the street. Parts of it are in ruins. Fire would be my guess. Don’t know whether it was put to the torch or it was an accident. The result’s the same in any case.”
Sardec weighed Weasel’s words and came to a decision. They needed to investigate the town. They might find food there and there was a remote possibility of finding a magician who might be able to help the sick. If Rena was coming down with the plague, Sardec was prepared to take any risk if there was any chance of saving her. He could not see what further purpose would be served by skulking in the hills anyway. It looked like the Sardean army had bypassed them.
“I think we should investigate the town. At very least we might be able to pick up some supplies there.”
“What if the locals are not friendly or they’ve gone over to the Dark Empire. We were none too popular when we passed through this country before, sir. I doubt the natives have come to love us any better now that the Sardeans are swarming all over their country and the walking dead are everywhere.”
“We’ll just have to keep our eyes open and deal with those contingencies if they arise, won’t we, Sergeant?”
“If you say so, sir. If you like the Barbarian and I could scout ahead and try and get a feel for the place. He’ll need someone with a brain with him to keep him out of trouble.”
“I need you here now, but you could send him with Toadface or Handsome Jan.”
“As you wish, sir.”
Rik stood by the abandoned mansion in which they had taken refuge and listened to the sounds of the night. Somewhere in the distance an owl hooted and something moved through the underbrush, perhaps a fox in pursuit of prey. He felt alone, like the last man in the world, for once not even the voices in his head troubled him.
Tamara touched him lightly on the arm. “We’d best proceed if we are going to get these lessons finished by a respectable hour. People are already starting to talk.”
He could tell from the tone of her voice that she was making a joke, but she was also impatient for some reason to begin. He knew he should be eternally suspicious around her but he found he was incapable of it. He suspected that it was just that she had a talent for teaching and was pleased to be able to use it, although as ever that seemed far too mundane a notion when applied to Tamara to be really plausible to anyone else but himself.
They made their way along a path, deeper into the surrounding wood. Rik glanced around to make sure they were not about to be ambushed.
Tamara moved quietly ahead, pausing occasionally to take deep breaths of the night air. Odd scents were there, unfamiliar blooms that grew in these lands but not in his own mixed with more familiar fragrances such as bitterblooms and witch roses. Overhead the moon beamed down through the leaves, its ancient face a skull.
They found a quiet spot in a clearing where some large boulders emerged from the earth, and Rik set the lantern down on top of one of them. Tamara looked thoughtful for a moment. “On a night like tonight who would believe the Servants of Shadow are abroad in our world or that the dead walk the surface of the earth.”
Rik could have done without that reminder of potential danger but he could see what she was getting at. There was a stillness and beauty to the night that moved him, and it came to him that even if the whole world fell to the Shadow that places like this would still remain, and that there would still be mountains and deep forests and seas untainted by evil. At that moment it seemed to him that evil was a very human concept, that it was a property unique to living beings to see things in those terms.
Somewhere nearby a mouse screamed as an owl dropped upon and broke its back. Perhaps he was wrong. The natural world was savage in its own way, and perhaps the Princes of Shadow would say that they were just owls preying on mice.
He had heard people argue that way before, robbers in Sorrow among them, just as he had heard others argue that it was the duty of the strong to prey on the weak, to winnow them out from the race. Those were easy arguments to make when you saw yourself as the strong one. Most such people never seemed to imagine there was someone stronger than themselves.
“You’re right,” he said to Tamara, bringing his mind back to the present. “I suppose in the end even the Princes of Shadow will pass. “
“Apparently they have not managed to do so on Al’Terra yet. They still seek new worlds to conquer.”
“Would it make a great deal of difference if they did?” he asked suddenly. “For most people in this world, I mean?”
“Did Asea put you up to asking that, to test me?”
“No. I came up with it all by myself. I am curious about what you think, that’s all. Would rule by the Princes be so different for most folk than the present regime?”
“I don’t see how you of all people can ask that? They propose to use humans as cattle.”
Rik felt a sourness rising up in himself. “People die anyway, of illness, of overwork, will the method of their death really make much difference?”
“I suppose that depends on whether you believe they have a soul, and whether having that soul eaten by a cosmic vampire is a fate worse than death.”
“It’s possible that people don’t have souls. That thanatomancy works simply by extracting nutrition from their bodies in a way analogous to the way we gain nutrition by eating food.”
“Is that what the voices in your head tell you?”
“Perhaps — but I suspect that I came up with that by myself too.”
“It might work that way, but then again it might not.”
“Looked at on a cosmic scale does it really make that much difference? One being will not live for a very long time. The other will pass in its normal span or something close to it anyway.”
“You are in a strange mood tonight, Rik,” said Tamara. She sounded wary. “Are you saying that you want to join with the Princes?”
“No. I am not. I hate them for what they have done. I hate what they are doing. I hate the fact that they have killed friends of mine by their actions and would kill me if they could. I am just wondering whether, in the long term, opposing them will make any difference.”
“I am not sure whether that’s a question that’s even worth asking?”
“What do you mean?”
“As far as we are concerned we can only affect what happens in our time.”
“You are not concerned with future generations then?”
“That’s a very human way of thinking, Rik. Take into account that I am a Terrarch. It’s possible my life will be scores of human generations.”
“That is not a problem I think I will have,” he replied.
“You do not know that. In any case, we should leave the philosophical discussions to one side for the moment and consider other things. I believe that you are ready to shadow-walk. You have mastered the basics.”
Excitement filled Rik. He had long envied her the gift that let her come and go seemingly unstoppably and without passing through the space between. The former thief in him appreciated how useful that talent could be and all the manifold uses he could put it to.
“I am willing to try,” he said.
“You should just do,” she said. “The secret and the ability is in your blood. It should come to you like breathing does to a baby.”
“After a sharp smack on the bottom?” he asked.
“Spare me the feeble jokes,” she said. “This is not the time. Of all the things I have to teach you, this is the one you most need to master. It is a power that may save your life and mine in the days to come.”
The seriousness of her tone affected him and he gave his full attention to what she said. He let himself relax and reach out with the other senses she had taught him to access. The night grew quieter, as if he had only a limited store of awareness available to his brain, and what he gained by concentrating in one area, he lost in another. The shadows became clearer to his sight and more than that, he became aware in some strange way, of what they contained. They were more vivid to him than objects he could see. He perceived them as if by an odd admixture of sight and touch, a mingled awareness of their weight and mass as of their shape and size.
He found that if he concentrated, he could pool his perceptions within one shadow, and become aware in much greater detail of all that was within it, although at a loss of his awareness of what was going on in the surrounding shadows. It was like concentrating on something through a magnifying glass. He was still conscious vaguely of what was happening elsewhere, as a man would be of objects moving in his peripheral vision. With an effort he could wrench his perceptions from shadow to shadow, moving it further and further away until he reached the limit of his ability perhaps a few hundred strides away.
He allowed his mind to jump to the fireside where Asea and Karim huddled over the rabbits they were stewing. He was aware of their conversation in part as if he was overhearing it and in part as if the very outlines of the words in the air were pressed into his thoughts. In some ways it was an experience similar to the ones he had undergone when he had taken some of the wizards drugs that Asea had given him.
Asea shivered as Rik concentrated his awareness on her, and Rik wondered if her sorcerer’s senses were so keen that she knew that she was under supernatural observation. According to what Tamara had told him, some people had a talent for that. Why not? Rik himself could detect a shadowgate being opened.
Rik wrenched his awareness back closer to hand. Aware that Tamara was shaking him by the shoulder and talking loudly in his ear.
“You’ve got to be careful of that,” she said. “You can get lost in the seeking, and waste hours shifting your consciousness from shadow to shadow.”
“How long was I out?”
“A few minutes.” It had happened before but not for so long, and Rik could see the danger at which she hinted. He had no idea how much time had passed since he had started the process, but he would not have guessed it was that long. It seemed there were subtle dangers in shadow magic, and that it was like a drug in more ways than one.
“Now,” said Tamara, “concentrate on the shadow beneath that tree on the far side of the clearing.” Rik did so, throwing his perception forward to the deep pool of darkness Tamara had indicated. Immediately he was aware of the shape of the ground around him, and mass of the tree above.
It was like being two people, divided, with one part of him living breathing flesh standing beside Tamara, the other a shadow outline in the place he perceived, and it came to him then that it was so. Somehow he had sent his shadow into the distance. He knew that if he looked down at his feet now, there would be no shadow there.
“Good,” Tamara said, her voice seeming to come from a great distance away.” You have completed the first part of the sending. Now you must complete the second. You must open the way.”
“How am I supposed to do that?” he asked. Forcing each word from his lips was like lifting a very heavy weight. He would not have believed how much the effort would cost him if he had not experienced it.
“Let yourself feel the space around your shadow-self. Be aware of it, as you would be of water around your hand if it were plunged into a pool.”
“I am doing that.”
“If you concentrate hard, you will become aware of something else, of a sensation of things underlying what you can feel, of a somehow distant chillness.”
He was immediately conscious of what she meant. It was as if his shadow were on the outside of something, part of the final layer of skin on an onion, and he was aware of something beneath, a different space, a tunnel into elsewhere. It was like rapping with his hand on a secret panel and becoming aware of the echo beneath. He could feel the energy there as he sometimes could when he was working sorcery.
“Do you have it?” Tamara asked.
“I think so, yes.”
“Tear a hole between your shadow self and the shadow realm.”
“Are you sure that is wise?”
“Wise or not, it’s the only way you will open the gate.”
“Is this how you do it?”
“It is how I did it originally. Now the whole process is so smooth that I don’t really notice how it’s done. But everyone and everything has to start somewhere.”
Rik tried to do as she said, but found that he could not. He simply had no idea of what he was doing. It was like asking a blind man to paint. He tried though and he kept trying until his frustration built. He felt obscurely humiliated that Tamara was here to witness this and angry with her as if she were deliberately asking him to do the impossible to make him feel foolish.
She sensed this, and he could almost picture her sardonic smile when she said, “It’s not always about you. I am trying to teach something in weeks that it took me years to learn.”
“I appreciate the effort,” he said. “I could only wish for more success.”
“Observe,” she said.
He felt another presence close to his shadow-shape and he knew it was hers. A tenebral hand reached out to cover his, and he felt that other presence guiding him through what had to be done. Suddenly there was a small gap, through which chill energy poured, widening itself. Within moments, it had suffused his shadow self.
He sensed the ebb and flow of secret energies, and then as if a key had turned in a lock, the parting of the veil that separated the Shadow world from his own. There was a sense of immense coldness and of alien presences whispering on the edge of the world, of things looking in from somewhere else. For a long moment his grasp on reality teetered. The way was open.
Tamara’s presence guided part of the shadow-self back to him, to where his shadow should have been and suddenly it was there, his shadow, in two places at once. More than that, there was a connection, a corridor between them that ran from one place to the other.
“Step forward into your shadow,” she said. “But be very careful, hold the opening at the other end open, otherwise you may be lost. I will do my best to guide you but do not rely on me being able to save you if things go wrong.”
What did she mean by that exactly? Was this the moment of crisis at last? Was this where treachery would occur? He told himself not to be so stupid. If she had planned to kill him she could have done so a hundred times before now. Ah, but this way she would have an explanation to give Asea. It would not be her fault if something went wrong with the way he cast the spell. He would be entirely to blame himself. He paused for a moment, trying to decide what to do. Stay or go?
He moved forward. There was a feeling such as he sometimes had in dreams of taking a step and beginning a fall down an infinite well. He was surrounded by blackness and grasping presences, the whisperers he had heard before, so like the ones who resided within his head, but which seemed to be native here, the natural inhabitants of this dark cold place. He sensed vague echoes of the world from which he had come, the bleak presences of shadows of trees and plants and small animals.
He put out his hands to steady himself, aware that somewhere ahead was an exit from this strange foul place. His lungs felt like balloons in a vacuum, as if all the air within him were threatening to explode outwards. His eyes stung and he felt the cold kiss of the void on his flesh.
He had no idea how long he fell for. He seemed to be outside time, in a dream space where events that lasted hours could be over in seconds and things that should have taken a heartbeat held the leaden touch of eternity.
Then he emerged from wherever he had been and stepped into the shadow of himself that anchored one end of the path. Time seemed frozen for an instant, as if he had stepped from a reality in which things moved much faster and to which his senses were still attuned. He was aware of a moth caught frozen in the air. It seemed as still as if it has been painted and he was certain he could have reached out and caught it if he so desired.
The shadow coated him like a film, surrounding him. He was it and it was him, and it was as if he had no more reality than it. He sensed possibilities there, of becoming like a shadow, of remaining in that strange half-realm between worlds and for a moment, sought to maintain the form and take a few steps. It was a strange feeling, as if he had suddenly become much lighter, or travelled to a world where gravity was far less and so was his mass.
He felt more like he was flowing over the surface of the world than walking on it, as if he were invisible and intangible as a shadow in darkness. He could not hold the form though, and his concentration slipped and somehow he was back in his own world, slumping to his knees, feeling gross and heavy and made of flesh and clay, with blood flowing sluggishly in his veins and his heartbeat ringing in his ears. His breath came from his lungs like a hurricane and he felt more real and yet more like a dream than ever he had in his life.
In another heartbeat Tamara was standing beside him, without having passed through the intervening space and without any part of the expenditure of energy it had cost him, or so it appeared. She stood over him, and looked down, at once worried and appalled.
“What did you do, there at the end?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“I felt the gate open because I was linked to you when you created it but you were not there where it emerged. I am not sure what you did, but I thought something had gone wrong, that you were struggling to emerge, that you had failed and were gone forever.”
So he had been invisible to her. Rik considered telling her what he had experienced, the sense of the strange possibilities that he had encountered. It seemed apparent that she had no idea of what he had encountered. Tamara was a very good actress but he could not see what she had to gain by pretending ignorance of what he had just been through. If it was not something she knew about, it was not something she could help him with, and the knowledge might prove useful to him, give him some advantage over her if she planned treachery so he said, “I do not know. I felt like I was drowning and had to force my way back to the shore, and fortunately I succeeded.”
“It’s as well,” she said. “Staying too long in the shadow world can kill you. Natural laws are different there and you can run out of breath or heat or life. It is best to spend as little time there as possible and make your escape when you can.”
“Doubtless you are correct.” He allowed himself a smile as the realisation sank in that, whatever else he had achieved this night, he had performed his first successful shadow-walk. He had proved he had the gift, even if he had required her guidance at first to use it. He cast his thoughts back over the procedure and he thought he understood what she had done, and how he could duplicate it. “I did it,” he said. “I walked through the shadow.”
She nodded, obviously troubled by what had happened and not nearly as elated as he. “That you did. That you did.”
“I want to try it again, on my own this time.”
She shook her head grimly. “Not tonight. You have used up enough of your energy for one night. A second time and you might not make it.”
He felt oddly disappointed but he could see the sense of her words. He had barely enough energy to get to his feet and he had to place both palms on the ground and push himself up. He really did feel like an exhausted swimmer pulling himself from the sea.
“You did well,” she said. “It took me months to master what you have learned today.”
He concealed his inward feeling of triumph, and clutched his secret revelations close. He felt like he had touched on a source of power independent of Asea and of her, one which would be his alone, and in that moment became aware that he was feeling the lure of Shadow.
Sardec studied the ruins. There were bodies on the cobbles. Whole streets had burned to the ground; it looked as if the fire had started somewhere and there simply were not enough people to get it back under control. There had been rain since then and water puddled in the streets. His small party moved amid the desolation like the last survivors in a dying world.
The children looked around them with wide, wondering, frightened eyes. The adults had the same childlike quality about them.
Sardec wondered if there was anyone left alive in this place, if there was anyone left alive in the entire world. Where had all the people gone? Where could they possibly have fled to? Surely it was not possible that they were all dead?
"There's an apothecary's shop on the corner, sir," said Weasel. "We can look in there for some healing herbs and sleeping drafts. We'll probably find lead for bullets as well."
"Go to it, Sergeant," said Sardec. "And keep your eyes open for any survivors. I'd like to talk to any locals that you can find. We need to find out what's going on in this country. We need news. We need information."
Weasel gestured for the Barbarian and Toadface to follow him, and loped off towards the building he had indicated. Sardec sat down on the remains of a tumbled down wall and indicated to the rest of the party that they should stand easy.
"I don't like this," said Rena, coughing. "It's like everything and everyone has died. It's like we’re the last people in the world. I'm starting to believe all those folk who claimed that the end times are here."
"I can understand how you would see things that way," said Sardec.
"Whatever happens now, I don't think the world will be the same."
Sardec nodded. "They say it was like this during the last days of Al’Terra. The Princes of Shadow unleashed all manner of strange sorceries. I always thought those things were exaggerations, but now I think they might have understated the reality."
"I wonder if the plague has reached Talorea. I wonder how the people I know in Redtower are doing."
Sardec reached out and stroked her hand in an attempt to reassure her. It was the first time a long time she had mentioned the town in which she had grown up. She had lost many of her family to a previous plague. He was surprised that she was holding up as well as she was.
Weasel’s shout was terrifyingly loud when it came and he realised then how quietly they had all been speaking. It was as if they were standing in a graveyard, talking respectfully of the dead.
Weasel had managed to find some survivors. He was pulling them out of a cellar. There were two of them, an emaciated looking man and a woman who looked as if she had once been much fatter, judging by the way the folds of skin flopped on her face and neck.
"Who are you?" Sardec asked.
"My name is Pteor, your honour, and this is my wife, Karin."
"What happened here, man?"
"The plague, sir. It swept through the town and killed most of the people. Too many to burn or bury. Then the dead started rising. Lots of people fled. Some of them fought. The fires started. The town burned to the ground. I don't know what happened next but all the dead men left. It was as if something summoned them."
"How did you manage to survive?"
"I'm not sure, sir. By the grace of God, I think. The herbs helped and the fact that we hid in the cellar probably didn't do any harm either."
"When my wife started to show symptoms of the plague I tried red berry root. It’s not something I would normally have tried since red berry is more for pregnant women than anything else but the colour reminded me of the plague spots and nothing else seemed to be working so I thought — why not? It helped and then the fever broke and she got better. She did the same thing for me when I started to go down."
"Are you saying you found a cure for the plague?" Sardec felt suddenly excited. He told himself not to get to hopeful.
"I tried the paste on other people and it seemed to cure all the symptoms as well. Of course some of them died from complications, or hunger or simply just the strain. But none of them rose from the dead."
"Are you sure, man?"
"I can't be certain, your honour, since I only tried the herbs on half a dozen people. However, if I did come down with plague again, I would want my wife to try the same cure."
"You think it's likely that you might come down with the plague?"
"Who knows, sir? We've not shown any symptoms since we recovered."
"Do you have any more of these herbs? Quick, man — answer me!"
"I have a sack of the stuff in my basement. It's always been cheap. Who would've thought it would be so useful? It might not prove to be so cheap in the future!"
"Will you give us some?"
"Are you sick?"
Sardec nodded and indicated the children and the limping, weary soldiers. Rena coughed a little too and he widened his gesture to include her.
“What about you, your honour?”
“I am not sick.”
“It’s true that the Terrarchs are blessed by the Light then, sir, and that the plague passes you by.”
Sardec did not feel blessed but he could see how things might look that way to a mortal so he simply nodded. “How long does this cure take to work?”
“A few hours, sir, if the victim is in a really bad way.”
“Might it be worth those men who don’t have the plague taking some of the drug anyway, as a preventative?”
“I don’t see how it could hurt, sir, other than by exhausting the berry paste when we might need it later.”
“If this works, Pteor, I will see that you have your weight in gold. You will go down in history as the man who found a cure for the greatest plague in history. You and your wife had better come with us. Pack up what you need. You’re going to be rich and famous!”
The mention of the gold made the man perk up. He hustled off and got busy, and Sardec offered up a prayer for his endeavours.
It was night and for the first time in a few days, there were no signs of illness among Sardec’s small command. No one was kept awake by coughing. All of the people who had seemed to be getting ill slept peacefully. Sardec sat within the abandoned Palace and watched some more antique furniture burn. Once he would have despised the waste but now they needed the warmth more than they needed the beautiful old chest of drawers. He looked down on Rena and thought he detected the faintest signs of improvement. There was more colour in her cheeks.
“They look healthier, sir,” said Weasel. The Barbarian grinned and nodded his head emphatically.
“Do you really think that old alchemist has found a cure for the plague?” he asked.
“We’ll just have to wait and see, but it’s starting to look that way.”
“If we can get this knowledge home we’ll all be heroes,” said the Barbarian thoughtfully.
“If we can get this knowledge home I’ll see you all decorated by the Queen and with a pension for life.” Sardec realised he was making very free with the rewards but he felt sure such munificence would be more than justified. In some ways it would be the discovery of the age. Who would have thought that a simple medicine used to ease women to childbirth would prove to be the cure for the worst scourge ever unleashed on this world?
He told himself to calm down, that it had not been established yet and even if it was the cure might only work for some people or prove only temporary. He felt hopeful though and that brought fear — of failure, of death. More than just the safety of his small party rested on him now. The lives of every human being in Talorea or quite possibly the world now did.
Perhaps Fate had just done this to torment him, to dangle the possibility of success and triumph in front of him just to yank it away. He told himself not to be so self-obsessed. All he could do was try and complete the task set in front of him and leave others to worry about the machinations of destiny.
Rena’s eyes opened and she saw him looking down on her.
“Hello,” she said.
“How do you feel?”
“Better than I have done in days.”
“I’m glad to hear it. You look better too. So do the others.”
“You look thoughtful. What were you thinking about?”
He told her. “You worry too much,” she said.
“I have a lot to worry about.”
“You’ll do your best. You always do.”
“What if I fail?”
“What if you don’t? All you can do is try. You can’t let worrying about the consequences stop you or make you second guess your decisions. You’re right — this is potentially the most important thing in the world now. You need to bring knowledge of it back to Asea or Lord Azaar.”
He saw the realisation flicker across her face — they did not even know where Asea was or whether she was still alive. “There are others who will know what to do about this. The important thing is that it works and we bring it back to the West. Then we might have a chance to overcome this plague and win this war. And now you had better get some rest. We still have a long way to go and you need to recover your strength.”
“What about you?” she asked. “Don’t you need rest too?”
He rose from beside her and glanced around. “I just need to check the sentries and then I shall get some sleep.”
Rik was glad the coach approached Askander. The tension had increased within him with every league as they approached the city and he felt like he was wound up so tightly that something within him might break. He knew that the greatest struggle of his life was approaching and now he just wanted to get it over with.
The full moon was near. That was when the barriers between worlds were at their lowest. If there was any time when an attempt to summon a Prince of Shadow was going to be made, it would be then.
He was as ready as he was ever going to be. He had learned a lot from Tamara and from Asea both. He could see in the deepest of shadows and darkness now in a manner that did not only use his eyes but gave him a strange mystical awareness of the space that surrounded him.
He could open the pathway and look through it to any shadow within a hundred yards, listening and seeing things there in black and white.
He could open the paths between deep shadows in a manner that would let him pass through them. He could mould the shadows and bend them to his will when he concentrated, altering their appearance, letting them flow over him to hide himself, to cloak him from the eyes of those who would see him. He had kept this a secret even from Tamara.
During the journey he had gotten to know his half-sister better.
There were times when he asked about his father, filled with curiosity about the Terrarch he had killed and never really known, and was surprised by some of the things she told him. He had not been the worst of fathers and his truly sinister nature had only become evident once Tamara was out of her childhood years. It seemed that he had changed over the time she had known him, becoming stranger and madder as he practised thanatomantic sorcery in response to his ageing.
Knowing what he did about such things Rik found that easy enough to believe. It was at once a revelation and a warning to him, a vision of what he could become himself if he followed a certain path. He wondered if he would have any choice about that- he was young now but perhaps if he became old and feeble like he had seen befall others, the temptation would become greater.
He was fooling himself, in some ways, because the temptation was always with him now. He knew the strength and power he could acquire by draining other living things of their life, and the more his knowledge grew the more he felt the temptation. Tamara had given him access to a body of knowledge that seemed to come naturally to him, far easier than the sorcery that Asea had taught him. It was as if he had always known it and merely had to be reminded, like a student having their memory jogged by a fragment of poetry, like a memory of childhood brought back by a certain smell or sight, like something that had always been there in his blood and had only now started to emerge and change him.
He wondered if this was the trap of which Asea had tried to warn him, at once simple and devilishly subtle. By using magic you not only changed the world, you changed yourself along with it. It was part of a process. He wondered what changes were being made to him by all this knowledge, in what subtle ways the patterns of his thoughts were being re-aligned. He had always been ambitious. He had always wanted such power and now he knew secret means of gaining power that were unknown even to the two sorceresses who had taught him. He could make himself very strong by using thanatomancy and there were going to be times in the near future when he would need such strength.
Rik wondered what he would do then. He had no illusions that he was likely to prove a match for an entire Brotherhood in the service of the Princes of Shadow. He doubted that even Asea was and she was far older and more powerful than he. Most likely the whole enterprise was doomed from the start and the best thing he could do was simply turn around and flee to the edges of the world.
But…he simply could not. He had committed himself to this mission and to Asea and there was a certain sullen stubbornness in his nature that would not let him back out of it now, at least not until she did. It occurred to him that he still had a huge chip on his shoulder and something to prove. He wanted to show Asea and the world that he was as good as any Terrarch, as persistent, as brave, their equal in any of the virtues on which they so prided themselves and so despised their human subjects for supposedly lacking. It was not a good motive for getting himself killed but somehow, it and the basic loyalty he felt towards Asea kept his feet firmly on the road Eastward long after common sense told him that he should make a run for it.
As they breasted the hill and looked down onto the ancient port city and the mighty fortress that loomed over it, he knew that this was going to be his last chance.
At first Sardec could not quite believe his eyes. Ahead of them was a small group of people, and they were people, not walking dead. Weasel had assured him of that. He had gone forward and talked to them and they were human enough. The watched him approach now, warily. One or two of them pointed pistols at him, others kept scythes and rakes held ready as if they were weapons. They had not allowed Weasel to come any closer than thirty yards but they let him walk right up presumably because he was a Terrarch.
Sardec studied them closely as he approached. A few of them were dressed as peasants, one or two like rich merchants. All of them looked afraid. Many of them prayed and made Elder Signs in the air. One of them, older, bearded more richly dressed and with the accent of a successful merchant said, “Good day to you, noble Terrarch.”
“Good day. What news of the world?” The man looked at Sardec suspiciously. He was a native Kharadrean and Sardec was a Talorean so he had every reason to be so according to his own lights. The Kharadreans regarded the Taloreans as invaders and Sardec was not sure that he blamed them for it.
“It is the end of the world, noble Terrarch. Or so I’ve heard tell. The plague has killed millions and the dead will not stay in their graves. You and your men are the first living beings we have seen in days.”
“But you have seen others.”
“Yes but we have met more of the dead. We fled from them and that is why we are still alive to talk to you.”
“Have you heard any news?”
“It seems many of the dead join the Sardean army but many more roam free seeking to devour the flesh and drink the blood of the living. They wander the land in huge bands. Some of them seem to have kept some intelligence and become leaders; most are mindless.”
Sardec realised they had missed a lot by sticking to the out of the way trails. “Have you heard anything of a Talorean army?”
“The Taloreans have fled West back towards their borders. They fear to stand before the Sardeans since their great General was defeated.”
Sardec did some swift calculations. “When did you get this news of them?”
“It would be at least a week ago, noble Terrarch.” Some of the other survivors nodded in confirmation. None of them looked like victims of the plague. None of them showed any symptoms. Sardec mentioned this.
Their spokesman looked at once fanatical and shifty. “That is because we abandoned any who show signs of the plague when they first develop symptoms. I left my own wife and children behind. It was better for them and better for us. Some of us need to stay alive if the human race is to survive.” He paused for a moment and added, “And continue to serve the Terrarchs, of course.”
Sardec said, “You can come with us if you want to. We are heading West. But there will be no abandoning the sick. We have a cure for the plague.”
“That would be a great blessing if it were true, noble Terrarch. Not that I doubt you, of course. If you say it, it must be true, you being one of the Elder Race and all.” It seemed to Sardec that there was less respect in his tone than there would once have been. He imagined that most of the survivors were going to sound like that. There were going to be some changes in the social order after this. Perhaps the cure they carried would prove to be another weapon in the hands of the Terrarch rulers. If they kept it a secret, they could give the cure to whoever they liked as a reward to the loyal. And they could withhold it from those who were disloyal if they so chose.
He would have liked to believe better of his people but he knew things were otherwise. There were those who would seize any weapon that presented itself, who would do anything to maintain their position in the world. The best way of preventing this was to spread the knowledge as widely as possible, to ensure that everyone knew what the cure was and how to apply it, so he told the merchant and immediately regretted it for he saw a cunning look come into the man’s eye and guessed that the merchant saw an opportunity for profit here. Sardec dismissed the thought. It did not matter whether the man sought profit or not. The knowledge would be out there in the world and would eventually spread anyway, particularly if Sardec made a point of making sure of that.
“Do you want to come with us or not?”
The man shook his head and the others seemed to take their cue from him. “With all due respect no, noble Terrarch. We have no desire to go West to Talorea.”
“Then we shall bid you good-day,” said Sardec.
“Be careful if you are heading into the Black Hills, sir. The dead are very numerous there and very savage, or so I have heard.”
“Thank you for the warning. We shall keep our eyes open.”
In the distance a bird sang. The sun peered through the clouds. Flowers bloomed and their scent filled the air. Sardec studied the land around him. It was lovely in its way, abandoned farmhouses set in the shadow of the rugged hills. It came to him then that this was not really the end of the world. Even if every sentient being in it died, plants would still grow, animals would still roam the woods. It would be a world empty of people but it would not die.
He felt more cheerful now. They had found what might prove to be a cure for the plague. If they could get that back to Talorea, they would all be heroes. He found that did not matter quite so much to him now as it once would have. Once he had lived for the idea of fame and glory. The events of the past few months had shown him quite how foolish that was. There were more important things to him now. Rena would live. The children would live. The surviving soldiers would live. He cared about these things. They were important to him. Far more important than the prospect of fame.
Another thought struck him. Rena noticed it and said, “What is it? What are you thinking?”
“It just occurred to me that the plague only affects human beings. It doesn’t affect plants or any other animal as far as I can tell. I was wondering why that was.”
She looked thoughtful and a little embarrassed as a person will when they are out of their depth. “I don’t know why that would be. I don’t know anything about magic. I don’t know anything about medicine.”
“Neither do I,” he said. “I find the older I get the less I know. It just interests me. I think you might have hit the nail on the head though. I think a combination of magic and medicine is at work here. I think someone designed this plague, created it to affect only human beings. And I think that that was a very wicked thing to do.”
“Who would do that?”
“I would like to say someone who was mad, someone with no sense of right or wrong, but I suspect it was done by someone with too much of a sense that they were right, with the certainty of it in fact. And I suspect it was done by a Terrarch like me.”
“If they did that, they were nothing like you.” She sounded very certain of that and he wanted to believe her.
A piercing whistle cut through the air. Weasel waved and pointed at the surrounding hills and Sardec saw immediately what was wrong. There were figures, human figures, moving along the brow of the hill paralleling them. He suspected that they were not really humans at all. He took the spyglass from his pocket and trained it on them. The figures leapt into view.
At first they looked like a crowd of ordinary people, but he could see that their clothes were tattered and rotten as was their flesh. It looked like they had found the dead people or rather the dead had found them.
He hoped the monsters had not seen them but was disappointed in this when they began to shamble down the hillside in pursuit of his small command. They came on slowly but inexorably, far too many to fight in this open ground. Fear seized Sardec’s heart. He gave the order for them all to run. The Barbarian seized up Lorraine. Pteor tugged his wife along. Toadface grabbed Alan by the hand and the whole small party fled along the mountain paths.
From the very first Rik did not like Askander. It had the air of a trap. It stank of dark sorcery, and the powerful nexus of energy swirling in the sky above the Imperial Palace was all too visible to his increasingly sensitive eyes.
He did not get the thrill he had always previously felt from arriving in a new city. He did not know the narrow streets of the human areas or the broad wide roads where the nobles dwelled. He felt vulnerable and alone despite his growing confidence in his new powers. The Empress’s secret police had a well-founded reputation for efficiency and he doubted that they had become any less so with a servant of the Shadow in charge.
He had practised speaking in the local dialect with Tamara and he thought he sounded passable but he knew there were many ways a native might be able to detect him as a counterfeit. It was just another way in which he was vulnerable.
Their first problem was to find a place to stay. According to Tamara, all Innkeepers were required to register their guests and report them to the secret police. A group of unknown nobles from out of town would attract too much scrutiny. And there was no way they could quarter themselves in her family mansion or with at the homes of any family friends. Doubtless all those places would be under close observation. They could be too easily exposed or betrayed.
According to her there were rough districts with empty houses but if a group of Terrarchs were spotted in those areas it would attract attention. They could disguise themselves as much as they liked but Asea and Tamara were still conspicuously Terrarchs.
They had discussed what to do in the approach to the city, and in the end had decided to abandon the coach and risk the abandoned houses. Tamara and Asea were muffled in padded jackets to make their outlines more like those of humans. Asea wore a high collared greatcoat and a broad-brimmed hat. Her hair was chopped short and her face smudged with soot and dirt. No one looking at her would think of the proud lady of the First.
Rik was surprised to see that she was in high spirits, taking the whole business in good parts, as if she were playing some game. She did not seem frightened at all, but then he had always known what a good actor she was.
Conspicuous as Rik felt, no one seemed to pay them undue attention as they made their way through the streets. Everyone seemed too wrapped up in their own fears and thoughts. All of the people looked hungry and wretched, not at all like the inhabitants of the capital of a nation that was conquering the world. The effects of the plague were being felt even here, and the hunger had come from a bad harvest.
Rik had no idea what became of the dead but he saw none of them wandering the street. Perhaps they were rounded up to join the army, or perhaps something else happened to them, or possibly some potent sorcery kept them from rising but he doubted that. There were too many horror-haunted faces all around. Something strange and dark and terrible was happening.
He could smell the salt tang of the sea now, and the air held that trace of moisture that he always associated with the coast. They trotted along beside a canal. Things floated in it, and green scum coated the water’s surface.
Sometimes he saw a drifting corpse, and that triggered those strange other memories that came from the Quan. He found himself feeling the urge to dive into the waters and swim bonelessly out to sea, and had to force himself to remember that he did not have the alien demon’s trick of being able to breathe water as well as air.
Other memories stirred within him, of drowning men and women killed while still in the water, and he had to force himself to face down fears that were not his own but yet were still part of him. It seemed the presence of the sea had brought back the submerged memories of the voices with redoubled force.
It was dark by the time Tamara had led them to the run down area by the docks, old buildings of wood and brick with smashed doors and boarded windows and a smell of rot about them. It took several attempts to find ones that were not already occupied by humans.
The building they ended up in was infested by rats and other vermin and Rik found himself wondering about pestilence, for such places were notoriously plague pits. There was a certain irony in worrying about such things when the undead plague was sweeping the continent, but nonetheless worry he did. It did not matter whether a disease made you rise from the dead after it killed you. Other sorts of plague would end his life just as quickly, and at this moment in time, he still had something to do.
Rik let himself out of the damp building and keeping to the shadows made his way along the street, determined to find out what was going on in the city. He had no fear of the usual criminal fraternity that would haunt streets like these. He carried a blade and brace of pistols. No ordinary man could take him off guard, and anyone who tried was in for a nasty surprise.
He made sure he knew where their hiding place was, noted its position near the canal and the local landmarks such as the burned down building opposite and made his way towards the harbour.
Within minutes he found himself in streets crowded with men and women, sailors and bar girls and soldiers off-duty. Costermongers sold fish and roast chestnuts and baked potatoes. The people roistered with a feverish, fear-fuelled merriment. He picked the purse of a drunken seaman just to keep his hand in and find some local coinage and made his way into a bar. Men played cards and backgammon and chess and bounced half-dressed wenches on their knees while calling for vodka and beer. Rik felt immediately at home. He had spent most of his life in places like this.
He found himself sitting next to a bearded sailor deep in his cups. The man looked at him sourly and cheered up when Rik offered to buy him a drink. “Been long in port?” Rik asked him.
“Too bloody long,” said the man, swigging at the beer and smacking his lips. “But it looks like we might be able to set sail soon.”
Rik raised an eyebrow and said nothing, and was rewarded when the sailor said, “Sounds like the Empress has managed to come to some sort of agreement with the Quan. Her fleet, anything bearing the colours of Sardea, will be allowed to sail.”
This was a new development and Rik had no idea what had provoked it. Was this the truth? Had the Sardeans found some leverage with the Quan? He supposed it was possible. If the Sardeans won this war, even the proud Sea Lords of Harven would have to deal with them and that would mean the Quan would have to do the same.
From what Rik knew of them, they could dominate the seas but there were things they needed from the land-dwellers and trading for them would be easier. Something else stirred in his alien memories, some memory of fear of the Terrarchs. Perhaps war at sea would not be totally one-sided.
He tried probing his Quan memories. It was not easy, for the creature did not think like a human or perceive the world like one, but eventually he found something- recollections of beings that could be summoned from the beyond that might wreck even the undersea cities of the Quan, and knowledge of something else as well, that the Quan were a dying race, and that it would not take a huge effort to wipe them out.
“You drunk, mate?” enquired the sailor, licking his lips cunningly. “You look as if you’re fading.”
Rik wrenched himself out the reverie and reminded himself that this was a dangerous place for such things. He smiled at the man, and said, “I’m fine,” even as he ran his fingers over his purse to make sure it was still there. He was sure the action was not wasted on the sailor. “Another drink?”
“Aye, but I’ll buy the grog this time.”
“So you think we’ll all be able to get out of here?” Rik asked.
“Aye, they say there’s a Quan ship out there below the harbour, and the beastly things have sent representatives to the Palace to talk with her high and mightiness.”
Rik suppressed a shudder. His last encounter with the Quan had not left him keen on having any further dealings with them but he sensed that there was something important here, some shift in the balance of power. An alliance between the Quan and the Sardeans would be bad for the rest of the world. More thoughts bubbled up from the alien within him. The Quan must be certain that the Sardeans were going to win this war, and they wanted to make sure that they came out on the winning side. It looked like things must be going very badly indeed for the Taloreans.
“I heard the Reds were putting up a fight out West,” he said, just to see what sort of response this got.
The sailor showed yellowing teeth. “You’ve heard different from what I’ve heard,” he said. “I heard they’ve been showing our lads a clean pair of heels all the way back to the Talorean border. Can’t say as I blame them either. No man wants to fight against the dead.”
“You’re right there,” said Rik.
“Heard they massacred a big Scarlet army a few weeks ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’ve done for another by now.”
“Nor would I.”
“Say what you like about the Empress’s sorcerers, they’ve found the secret of victory this time and no mistake.”
Rik nodded. He was in no position to disagree. He kept drinking and not just to blend in with the locals.
“It’s hopeless, sir, we’re never going to get away,” said Handsome Jan. He was puffing and out of breath just like most of them. Sardec could see that they were tired and could not keep this up for much longer.
It was easy enough to distance the walking dead by running. The problem was the runners got tired and the pursuers never did. The dead just kept moving: untiring, implacable, inexorable, unstoppable. Every time Sardec’s little party thought they had escaped and gave themselves the opportunity to take a rest, it was only a matter of time before the walking dead came into view once more.
They were like tireless hounds on a scent. Sardec was not sure why it had happened, why this particular group had decided to hound his people unto death, but it definitely appeared to be the case. Perhaps they were hungry. Perhaps there was something about the sight of the living that offended them but they had not given up the trail, and did not appear to want to.
“It’s never hopeless, soldier,” Sardec said. “We’ll find a way to escape them.”
“If you say so, sir,” said Handsome Jan. “Although I would be very grateful if you could tell me exactly how we are going to do that.”
Sardec grinned. Now was not the time to harangue the man for insubordination. Now was the time to encourage him to move so that he would encourage the others.
Sardec realised that he needed to encourage himself. Was there any way that they could escape? What would it take to get the walking dead off their trail? He could not think of anything. He glanced over at Weasel and the Barbarian. They came running up to him. The Barbarian was still carrying little Lorraine.
“You two, go and scout ahead. See what you can see. See if you can find a place that is defensible. I don’t think we’re going to be able to outrun these monsters. We’ll need to find a place to hold them off.”
“Whatever you say, sir,” said Weasel.
“There’s no need for you to take the girl with you,” said Sardec. “Give her to me, I’ll carry her for a little.”
The Barbarian loped off after Weasel. Sardec watched them go. He realised that in a way he had already given up hope. He knew there was no way they were going to escape. It was only going to be a case of finding a place to make their last stand.
“It’s important,” said Rik, looking around at Tamara and Asea. He did not like this place. Damp blotched the tumbled down walls. Rats scurried through the abandoned corridors. The house reminded him too much of parts of his childhood. “If the sea lanes are open again, I say we book passage out as soon as possible.”
“You’re hopeful, Rik,” said Tamara. “I doubt that any of us will be walking away after we close the Gate.”
“I prefer to plan for all possibilities, however slight,” said Rik. “If we do get in and out we will want to be able to get out of the city as quickly and safely as possible and a ship is the best and easiest way of doing that.”
“Rik’s right,” said Asea. “We can’t go in assuming its hopeless right from the start. That way lies failure. We have to assume that we will succeed and that some of us will survive. That being so, we need a means of escape although I am not sure this is the best way.”
“A ship to Harven and on from there. The free city is still technically neutral even if it is making treaties with Sardea.”
“I suppose I should remind you that the last time we visited Harven we were not exactly warmly welcomed. I am still wanted there, and the danger is even greater for you.”
She was right. The Quan were the real masters of Harven and he doubted they would welcome him, having killed one of their number. He could not see any other way though.
“I think a ship, to anywhere, it does not have to be Harven, is preferable to trying to a getaway over land. No walking dead, no Sardean troops.”
“Aren’t we getting a little ahead of ourselves?” said Tamara. “We don’t even know how we will get into the Palace yet, and already we are planning our escape.”
“I think you can help us there,” said Asea. “You know the layout of the Palace and the secret ways of getting us in.”
“Rik and I can get in easily enough by shadow-walking,” said Tamara. “I don’t know about you. And once we are in we will need to break into the vaults and find the Black Mirror.”
“There are postern gates leading into the vaults from the outer walls of the Palace. They lie on the external cliff walls. At least there once were,” Asea said.
“They are still there, as far as I know, but they will be guarded. You still have not said how we will find the Black Mirror.”
“It will not be difficult to detect once we are within the wards of the Palace walls. Its power will make it easy enough to find.”
Asea looked at Tamara. “You will prepare maps of the Palace. I can compare them to what I remember.”
She turned to Rik. “Once those are done you will plan how to get us into the heart of the place. I trust you have not lost your old skills?”
“If there are ordinary locks I can open them,” he said. “What about Karim?”
“Once he has helped me to the postern gate, he should go. There is nothing he can do to help us once we are inside the walls. He can wait for us outside the gates in case we make our getaway that way. If we do not join him within a day, he can make his way back to the West. I will write him a mandate of freedom before we set out.”
Karim did not like this but he could not argue with his mistress. Rik did not like it for his own reasons. It seemed obvious to him that Asea had her own death on her mind.
Even as that thought occurred to him, he saw her eyes widen. He felt something too, an increase in the level of ambient magic, an intensification of the spells being worked in the sky above them.
“We need to move very quickly,” Asea said. “They are going to try and open the Gate tonight. It’s the full moon. That will be the best time for it.”
“We’re not ready,” said Rik.
“Nonetheless we need to go. Otherwise it will not matter whether we are ready or not. We will be too late.”
As he jogged along, the Barbarian decided to speak what was on his mind. All around them the land looked eerie in the moonlight.
“There’s no way they’re going to get away,” he said. “You know that and I know that.”
Weasel altered his pace so that they were running alongside each other and looked at him directly in the eye. “What’s your point?”
“If the deaders overtake them, they’re all going to die. There’s too many walking dead and not enough bullets and not enough soldiers.”
“I’m surprised that you can count that high.”
“I can count high enough to know when there’s going to be a massacre and so can you.”
“What are you suggesting we do about it?”
It was funny, the Barbarian had thought that Weasel was brighter than this. “We don’t have to go back. We can get away. You and me are still fit and we can both run fast enough.”
“Particularly if the others are left behind to distract the deaders.” There was something strange in Weasel’s tone. The Barbarian could almost have sworn that it was disapproval. He could understand that. He did not exactly approve of what he was hinting at himself.
“Are you suggesting that we do that?”
“I don’t like the idea but I don’t see what’s to be gained from making a heroic last stand either. We’ll all die together but we’ll die all the same.”
“How long do you think we’ll live for, on our own, out here in a land infested by the undead?”
“Long enough. Longer then we will if we wait to be overtaken by that army of walking dead.”
“And you’re willing to leave little Lorraine and her brothers to fight our battles?”
“I never said that.”
“And you’re going to show those walking dead a clean pair of heels?”
“I never said that either. I just brought the subject up because I didn’t think you would want to die.”
“That’s very generous of you, thinking of my feelings like that. I would hate to think that you brought it up because you were afraid. I’ve always thought better of you Northmen.”
“So you’re saying that you don’t want to run away then?”
“Good. Well I’m glad that’s settled. I would hate to think that you were the sort of coward that would run out on his friends and companions when the going got tough.”
“Well, good we settled that to your satisfaction. Unless I am much mistaken that farmhouse on the hill there will make a good camp.”
“Yes, I think you’re right. We’d best be getting back. The others will be wanting to camp down for the night.”
“Ready?” Tamara asked.
Rik gazed up at the massive structure of the Palace through the gathering gloom. He was awed by its size and the power he felt flowing through it. He was garbed in black, armed with blade and pistols, and profoundly wished that he could carry truesilver bullets through the Shadow Realm. With all his heart he feared what they were likely to encounter within the Palace.
“As I will ever be,” he said. “Are you sure they cannot detect us? If I can spot you as you pass through the shadows then surely they can spot us.”
“They did not seem to be able to when I arrived last time. Now does not seem to be the right time to be discussing the metaphysics of sorcery. It’s a bit too late to back out of this now.”
Rik smiled and studied the deep shadows. They whispered to him. “It’s never too late to back out of things.”
“You feel like running?” she had the look of someone who only needed the slightest encouragement to run away herself. He considered it. This was most likely his last chance to get away, to have a chance at living, at least for a little while. They could use their powers and head off. But that would mean leaving Asea in the lurch and all the other people who were depending on them.
He shrugged. “I’m curious to see what’s inside the Palace,” he said.
“Well, if we see any good loot, I’ll be having it.”
“We’d best go then.”
He concentrated, reached out across the shadows and opened his path. He sensed the inside of the Palace, scanned around the shadows and found one far from the nearest guard. He stepped forward, passed through the whispering void and emerged on the other side. As he did so, he tried the twisting sorcery, he had done the first time, cloaking himself in shadows and making himself invisible.
A moment later he sensed Tamara arriving. “Rik?” she whispered, “are you there?”
He reached out and touched her. It felt as if he was insubstantial or she was immensely dense. “I am here,” he said. She glanced around fearfully and said, “What are you doing?”
“A trick I thought of.”
“Are you sure it’s wise, that you can control the magic?”
“If it lets me walk through this place undetected…” She nodded and worked sorcery herself, her outline shimmering and changing until she looked like a Palace guard. Rik doubted that the disguise would fool Asea or a truly potent sorcerer but it would deceive an ordinary Terrarch.
“Watch over me,” she said. Rik nodded even though he doubted that she could see him, and moved as quickly and quietly as he could in her wake as she moved towards the door.
Sardec looked at the ruined farmhouse and wondered if this was the place where he was going to die. It was not the most inspiring of spots but it was the most defensible position for miles around. It looked as if the building had been abandoned long before the plague. It had that sort of feel. Ivy overgrew many of the walls and the shutters were partially rotted. Any glass that might have been in the windows had been removed a long time ago. It was valuable and would have been carried away when the occupants had left.
It was a sort of place that featured as a haunted house in the stories he had read when he was a child. It seemed appropriate to be making a last stand here against an army of the walking dead.
The building lay near the top of the slope and it had clear fields of fire all the way down the hill. If Sardec had had a company of men and they had been fighting against ordinary foes he would have felt confident that he could have defended the place for a week given enough supplies.
In the distance, despite the fading light of the early evening, he could see their pursuers moving like a dark tide through the valley below. There were so many of them and they moved with a deceptive slowness that hid the fact that they were tireless and implacable pursuers.
He cursed their bad luck. They had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time and crossed the path of a wandering horde of undead monsters.
He kept looking at them, hoping that it was a mistake, and that the creatures would pass on along the trail. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that they were on the same path.
For a moment, his hopes were raised, for the creatures passed where the Foragers had left the road. They streamed past the narrow trail as if they intended to continue along the valley. Sardec let out a long sigh of relief but then one of two of them stopped, looked around with a sort of stupid puzzlement and began to follow the pathway up to the ruined farmhouse. There could be no mistake. They had not missed the Foragers trail after all.
"Get everybody inside," Sardec said. "See if you can find a way to barricade the doors!"
"Yes, sir," said Weasel. He stared down at the oncoming horde of dead men impassively and Sardec could tell that he had the same thoughts on his mind. He knew they were going to die here and quite possibly join the legions of dead men who were conquering the world.
Perhaps not though, perhaps it was infection with the plague that made the dead rise after they were killed and perhaps the fact that they had taken the cure would also prevent them from rising. Sardec hoped that was the case, for the sake of the men at least. He was pretty sure it would not happen to him. He had never seen a Terrarch among the walking dead.
One by one the small party passed into the farmhouse. Sardec remained outside keeping an eye on the advancing enemy. They shambled slowly up the slope. It would probably take them at least an hour to get here. At least there was a full moon tonight and there were not that many clouds in the sky. They would have some light to shoot by.
Who was he trying to fool? It did no matter how many shots they fired or how many of those shots hit, there was still no winning this battle. There were so many of the dead down there that they would be swamped by simple weight of numbers. He racked his mind to try and find a solution to the problem. There had to be some way of stopping the monsters. There had to be.
If he had naphtha or oil he might have burned the dead as they advanced. If there had been a sorcerer present, magic might be usefully deployed. But he did not have any of those things. He had a small group of armed men and some women and children, all of them tired, all of them hungry, all of them scared and none of them over-supplied with bullets.
Think. There had to be an answer. Reason told him that there was not. His grasp of tactics let him know that the situation was hopeless. All they could do was barricade themselves in the ruins and fight until they ran out of bullets and strength. He doubted that would take very long. In the end, he would achieve the same result by simply surrendering to the undead and letting his people be devoured. Whether they fought or not would not make much difference.
He told himself not to give in to despair, that there was always hope, that somehow they would make it through the night. He could not convince himself though and he knew he needed to if he was going to convince the others. Why? Why give them false hope when they were all going to die anyway?
From behind him came the sounds of the Foragers at work, as they manhandled old furniture into position to block the doors and threw open the shutters to give themselves clear shots. Sardec was amazed by their energy. They knew as well as he did what was going to happen but still they went on behaving as if there was a chance of survival. He could do no less.
"Better get inside, sir," shouted Weasel. "We're about to barricade the door."
Sardec hurried inside and swiftly the soldiers piled up old furniture behind him and then took up their positions with rifles ready, waiting for the armies of death to come.
Unconscious sentries lay at their feet. Tamara opened the postern gate. For a moment Rik feared that something had gone wrong, that Asea was not there but then she stepped into view, fully garbed in her war-gear, and said, “You have not been spotted?”
“Not as far as I can tell,” said Tamara.
“Where is Rik?” Asea asked. Rik was pleased. Even a master sorcerer could not spot him. His new talent might prove very useful if he survived. On the other hand he was starting to discover a downside. Maintaining this strange form of invisibility was draining his strength fast. He felt as if the life were slowly being leeched out of him.
“He is with us.”
“I am here,” Rik said. His voice emerged as a thin whisper, as if he were only partially in the same world, or it were echoing down a long corridor from very far away.
“I see you have been developing new talents,” she said. “Did Tamara teach you this?”
“He taught himself.”
“Impressive. You have become wraith-like. That might prove to be dangerous in the long run.”
Rik wanted to ask her what she meant, but this did not seem like the time or the place. They had too much to do, and too little time to do it in. “We had best move on,” said Rik. “If we’re going to do what we came for.”
Asea nodded. There was worry etched on the silver mask of her face and suddenly, and for the first time, it made her look old. Rik had a sudden fierce premonition that this was not going to end well for her, or any of them. He regretted coming to this vast ancient fortress, surrounded by its deadly spells, inhabited by servants of an ancient evil.
They headed along the benighted corridors, their way lit be sorcerous glowglobes, their path led by Tamara. Every now and again, Asea stopped and worked a simple-looking sorcery, as if she were trying to confirm something, perhaps the direction in which they intended to go.
All around them was silence, as if the Palace slept, though Rik was sure it was not so. When he looked through the shadows he sensed furious activity all around, and the flows of ancient energies.
Was this a trap or was it simply something else going on? What he felt made him uneasy, and he could understand why Asea seemed so nervous. Tamara pushed on, decisively, as if she were out for a stroll in the park. Now that she was committed, she was really committed. Rik admired her coolness and determination even though he knew she was just as on edge as he was.
They kept to the less intensely used parts of the Palace, heading always downwards, towards the heart of the darkness. He was reminded of the cellars of the Inquisition back in Halim although this was a thousand times worse.
The voices gibbered within his head, afraid and angry. They did not want him to be there, although there was nothing they could do about it save scream their panic. The Quan sensed something wrong with the ebb and flow of magical energies around them, and Rik was inclined to trust those alien instincts in matters like these.
There was power in this place, so great that he doubted even the most insensitive could fail to notice it, and so tainted that it made his stomach turn. He sensed flows of corrupt energy all around, a power related to that which fuelled the armies of the dead in their war of conquest.
“Now we’re approaching the heart of this,” said Asea. Tamara merely licked her lips and nodded.
“Do you want your pistols, Rik, or your blade?” Asea asked.
“No,” he whispered. “Leave the pack upon on your back though so I can get to them quickly.”
He had feared that she would object to his words as a high noble might object to taking a command from a peasant, but she merely nodded and obeyed his instructions.
“The blade on my belt is the truesilver one Azaar gave you,” she said to the nearest shadow, and he realised that she could not, for all her power, perceive him. At any other time he would have felt triumphant, now he only felt worried as he realised that her power had limits and he had passed beyond the edges of them. He made a note of where the blade was in case he had to reach for it quickly.
“Perhaps you should scout ahead, Rik,” said Tamara, “since you seem to have manifested a talent for this beyond mine.”
“I will do that,” he whispered as he passed her and moved silent as a shadow, and invisible as the wind, down the haunted corridors of the Palace.
He drifted ahead of them, moving up to junctions and checking for guards, then returning. He stood guard as Tamara opened locks that let them down into the deep dungeons. He walked in shadows beside them as they moved through endless cells and chambers towards the strange magical heart that pulsed in the core of the place, feeding on the sorcerous energies of uncountable deaths. There was some sort of feedback between the plague and the spell that bound the undead. He felt certain of it, even if he was not sure why.
They were getting close now and Asea gestured for them to halt. “We’re very near now and I want you all to be ready. You will have to protect me while I close the Gate. You’ll know when it’s done.”
“What if something goes wrong?” Tamara asked nervously.
“Then flee,” said Asea.
“I don’t like the look of this at all,” said Handsome Jan. A huge mob of walking dead surrounded the cottage. It was quite clear they sensed the presence of the living and were hungry.
“This is it,” said Toadface. “We’re all going to die. If we are lucky.”
“Don’t be stupid,” said the Barbarian. He had drawn his blade and laid it on the remains of the table. He was pouring powder into the barrel of his rifle. “We’ve been in worse situations. We’ll get into others.”
“What are they waiting for?” asked Handsome Jan.
“For us to die of boredom,” said the Barbarian.
Sardec shook his head. The big man’s stupidity had rarely seemed so impenetrable. Sardec realised then that he was merely scared and nervous, and rightly so. They were all going to die in the next few minutes. There were far too few of them and far too many of the walking dead.
Hopeless as it seemed, they needed to do something. He was not just going to stand here waiting to be slaughtered. They were going to take a few of those monsters out there with them. He almost laughed at that. How did you kill the dead? He told himself it did not matter.
“You lot, prop more of that furniture against the door. Watch the windows. I want a man at every one and some of you upstairs, shooting down into the mob. If they break in, we’ll retreat upstairs and make a stand there.”
He did not need to say last stand. Everybody understood that. He could see all the men exchanging looks at once pitiful and bold. Marcie and Rena shepherded the children upstairs so that they could not hear the rest of this discussion. He was glad of that.
Toadface looked at him, licked his lips with his long tongue and said in a choked voice, “If things don’t work out well, sir, I think I speak for all the lads when I say it’s been an honour to serve under you.”
Sardec found himself surprisingly touched by the chorus of ayes that echoed round the ruined cottage. He hid the emotion behind a stern facade and said, “No need to be emotional, Toadface. We’re not dead yet.”
“Never say die, eh, sir?”
“That’s right. Now load up and get ready to show those stinking bastards what for. We’re still among the living so let’s try to remain here.”
A shout from upstairs got Sardec’s attention. It was Weasel from his sniper’s position on the roof. “Something’s happening, sir. They are starting to move.”
Rik did not like this at all. The corridors were silent. It was as if this part of the great labyrinth beneath the Palace had been abandoned.
It was too easy. Things had gone too well. They had penetrated the most heavily defended part of the Dark Empire and so far no one had been able to stop them.
He told himself not to worry too much, to save his fears for when things really went wrong. Both he and Tamara were skilled in the arts of breaking and entering, and had powerful sorceries to aid them beside. Tamara knew her way round this Palace, as did Asea from the days before the Schism. They had advantages that he had never enjoyed during his career as a sneak thief. It was not so surprising that they had managed to come as far as they had undetected.
He took a deep breath and concentrated on his surroundings, reaching out through the shadows. His perceptions flowed in the direction of the Gate and as he did so he felt them altering, being changed by the powerful sorcery of the place. The shadows seemed thicker, curdled like old milk, denser and sourer, charged with an evil energy.
He looked into a great chamber and saw the Black Mirror. He understood at once why it was so called although it was not a mirror at all. It was an arch of stone in the middle of which was a field of force so dark and brilliant it reflected its surroundings. At the centre of it he sensed an absence, a hole in the fabric of space-time that was growing larger in infinitesimal increments and which might, if not closed, eventually grow large enough to swallow the world. It was like a wound in the surface of the universe which was, with glacial slowness, being torn ever wider.
A group of black-robed sorcerers knelt at the five cardinal points of sorcery around the Black Mirror. Their eyes were closed and their lips writhed as they chanted. They seemed oblivious to all that happened around them, locked in a world of their own by chains of sorcerous energy binding them to the Mirror. Around them at a distance from the gateway stood others, who looked powerful and alert. These would be the guardians and he sensed a subtle wrongness about them that made his heart sink.
He remembered Tamara’s tale of the creatures she had fought. Even with the advantage of surprise and his sorcery could he beat such a thing? If it had power akin to a Nerghul, he could think of only one way. It came to him then that the real reason he had agreed to come along on this suicide mission was that it gave him an excuse to feast again, to drain life using thanatomantic magic, and feel the indescribable ecstatic burn that it provided.
He was like those men he had known back in Sorrow who were addicted to drink or dreamdust, the ones who somehow always managed to find a reason to go back to the bar or dealer no matter what promises they had made or how much resolve they claimed to have. There was part of him that wanted to use that tainted magic and always would. The path that had led here was the path that gave him the excuse he needed.
He studied the sorcerers of the Mirror and the unholy energies that infused them. They burned with power bled from that flowing into the Gate. They were very strong.
“It’s behind that doorway,” he heard Asea say from by his side.
“Yes,” said Tamara. “Rik and I can clear a path. You can follow if you can pass the spells binding the Gate.”
“That I can do,” said Asea.
“Are you ready, Rik?” Tamara asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“On the count of three then, let us go.”
Rik’s stomach lurched. The moment was upon him at last; within the next few heartbeats he might be dead. His remaining breaths might be numbered to only a few more than Tamara’s count. Nonetheless excitement burned in him too, and he felt so eager to get to grips with the enemy that he could barely restrain himself from making the shadow — walk.
“One,” said Tamara. Rik slid his blade from the scabbard and focused his mind back through the shadows into the Gate chamber.
“Two.” He tightened his grip around the blade, picking the spot from which he would emerge and planning exactly how he would strike.
“Three.” He stepped forward into the shadows and fell through the whispering void towards his target, one of those assigned to protect the sorcerers. Emerging on the far side he reached out with one hand. Instinctively, guided by the knowledge of the Quan, he lashed out, draining life from the guardian.
Tendrils of dark energy burrowed into his foe through vein and muscle and bone and he became aware of just how altered the Terrarch was. Strange things had been added to him. His bones had been strengthened, his heart altered and that which flowed through his veins was not blood but something clotted and black and oily.
There was little resistance; his prey had not been expecting the attack. Energy flowed into Rik, feeding him strength and driving him onwards.
The sensation of vampirism was ecstatic. The flow of power enabled him to drain his victim all the faster. The Terrarch’s skin turned pale and grey and ashen and began to flake off. He took on a withered mummified look. A strange whistling moan emerged from his lips as life fled from him.
A deluge of memories far too fast to be assimilated flowed before Rik’s eyes. He saw the Terrarch’s youth, his initiation into his strange cult, and the operation that had transformed him into something other than human. He saw the pumps that had drained him of blood and replaced it with black fluid and the surgery that had replaced his internal organs with things torn from corpses and altered and grown in glass jars bubbling with nutrient fluid. He felt the taint that the Terrarch carried within him, cancer-like. He saw how the Terrarch’s eyes had been scooped out and replaced with new ones that had been stolen from dead men and changed to let their own see things that other men could not.
He took part of the stolen life force and forced it into the spells that made him faster and stronger. Time slowed.
It came to him that his victim did not even know what was killing him, saw him only as a deadly shadow. He was almost drained now and would not last much longer. Rik lashed out with his blade, severing the head with one blow. It rolled away across the floor, little more than a mummified skull to which a few wisps of hair clung.
Tamara danced across the room, far faster and stronger than a human. She had managed to sever the head of one of the guardians in the first moment of surprise, but the others swarmed towards her, unaware still of Rik’s presence, or uncaring.
Tamara’s movements would have been sight-blurringly swift to a normal mortal, but to Rik they seemed as slow as something happening in a dream. He had time to take in the precision of her attacks and the beauty of her technique as she dodged her foes.
They were as fast as she and as strong and he noted that their power came not from spells but from the modifications that had been made to them. They looked like Terrarchs but they were something else now, creatures modified by eldritch sorcery.
Rik swirled over to them, exulting in his power, he struck the head from one’s shoulders before it knew what was going on. Decapitation was a proven way of killing them. He did not want to experiment when facing creature’s as potent as any Nerghul.
The changelings were not stupid. They noticed what was going on even if they could not see Rik. Two of them turned and their blades slashed through the air where he had been a moment ago. He ducked their strokes and sprang backwards away, knowing that getting in the way of those razor edged blades would be fatal, even if it only happened by accident.
“I see something,” said one of the guardians. “The shadow of a shadow of a shadow. There’s another here, a sorcerer.”
Tamara took advantage of the instant of confusion to drive a stiletto through his eye. She left it there, buried in the brain and slashed a tendon. Her foe toppled and writhed, beating hands and feet against the paving stones like a lizard dropped on a hot skillet.
Rik swept towards his own assailants, slashing and cutting. He felt his stolen energy draining away fast. The many spells enwrapping him were taking their toll. He knew that he would have to finish this quickly or drain another foe, and with the edge of his life-hunger dulled by satiety, he was not sure that he wanted to do that again quite so quickly. He rained blows down on one of the guardians, a hundred cuts that would have drawn blood from any normal mortal but left his opponent with more slashes that a butcher’s block. The impact drove it back.
Its companion slashed at Rik, and its blade bit home. Pain surged up his arm, and the cloak of shadows flickered and dissipated around him. He invoked the healing spells Asea had taught him, and knitted his own flesh back together but he had lost the advantage of invisibility.
“There he is,” said one of the guardians. “We have him now.”
“Do you?” Rik asked, springing tiger-like on the foe he had driven back and knocking him to the ground. Straddling his opponent’s chest he placed his blade against its neck and pushed down, sawing the head partially from the shoulders. A swish of air behind him warned him of peril and he sprang just in time to avoid being pinned to the enemy. Instead, the guardian’s blade went through its companion’s breast with such force that it became embedded in the floor.
Rik attacked in that moment of defencelessness and slashed away the hand holding the blade, at the wrist. His foes may have been invisibly armoured by magic but their weak spots were at the joints of their limbs and necks, which had to remain flexible and thus vulnerable.
He shouted this information to Tamara, just in case she had not realised it herself, and set to work at butchery. He hoped that Asea would get here in time. He sensed there was something unstable about the Gate.
Sardec watched as the undead rolled forward in an irresistible wave of stinking, rotting flesh. Their feet made an awful squelching sound and their bellows breath whistled eerily. There was the thunder of musketry and the smell of gunpowder as the Foragers opened fire.
Their foes were packed so close that they could hardly miss. Walking corpses toppled to be trampled underfoot by their companions who kept on coming.
It seemed like only a matter of moments before they had reached the walls of the cottage. Sardec could see their yellowish faces, bloodshot eyes gleaming, the blood of old wounds running down their heads. He had faced crowds and regiments before but there was something about the silence of the undead that was deeply unsettling.
Silence was the wrong word, he thought. They did not speak. They did not shout. They did not whisper. They made no attempt to communicate. The only sounds that came from them were involuntary. The whistle of air from corrupted lungs, strange groans that might have been the emissions of animals. They looked like humans, but they came on like an army of ants, and whatever intelligence that was in their eyes was as different from that of humans as an insect’s might have been.
The door bulged as the weight of dozens of bodies pressed against it. With a crack it gave way and the undead monsters began to crawl in over the piled furniture. Sardec prepared himself for close combat.
The door exploded inwards and Asea entered. In one hand she held her lightning wand, in the other was a sword of truesilver. The runes on the blade blazed in the eddy currents of powerful magic. There was a brilliant flash, and the smell of ozone filled the air. One of the guardians fell, skin blackened, and then Asea spitted him on her blade. His flesh sizzled as the blade worked its way in; when it reached his heart, the chest seemed to collapse inwards as if bones and internal organs had liquified. If they were magical in nature that was quite possible.
Rik redoubled his efforts, fighting his way over to Asea and preparing to defend her. With the aid of her magic, the fight was soon over. Once they had done with the guardians, the sorcerers were easy prey. They never stirred from the ecstatic communion with the Mirror even as he killed them. They stood uncontested in possession of the gate chamber. In the distance, alarm bells rang.
Rik looked at his patron. “What now?” he asked.
“You and Tamara hold the door. I will do what we came here to do. After that is done you must flee.”
“What about you?”
“I will try and get out but if worst comes to the worst you must abandon me. You and Tamara have the means to get out. I do not.”
“I won’t do that,” said Rik. “I won’t leave you here.”
“I don’t think you have any choice in the matter, Rik, unless you are keen to die. Now take up your position. We must get on with it.”
He stared at her, not yet willing to do what she said. She shook her head and smiled. “I thank you, Rik, for what you mean to do, but your death will serve no purpose. It would suit me better if you lived. I have made provision for you in my will. Karim has the documents with him.”
“You knew this was going to happen, didn’t you?”
“I suspected it might come to this, but I hoped it would not. Now in the name of the Light let me get on with this, or we shall all die here in vain.”
She tossed him the blade and the lightning wand. He held the blade gingerly by its insulated hilt and stuffed the wand into his belt. It was useless to him at the moment since he did not know how to use it.
He glanced around the room taking in the scene of utter devastation. All of the guardians were dead and decomposing with supernatural swiftness, taking the evidence of whatever supernatural tampering had been done to them to the grave. The air stank of rotting flesh and things long dead. The glow of the glittering gateway anchoring the spell hurt the eye if he looked at it too long. The sorcerers lay sprawled in their own blood, smiles etched eerily on their faces.
He glanced at the silver-masked figure of Asea, bowed to her and took up position beside Tamara. Behind him he could hear Asea making preparations. A glance backwards showed him that she was inscribing a circle of power around the gateway in chalk, kicking the bodies of the dead out of her way where necessary.
Whatever she was planning he hoped it would work. He could hear alarms ringing and the sound of men approaching from the distance.
Tamara grinned at him. “I never thought it would be this bad,” she said conversationally.
He took his bantering tone from her. “You call this bad?”
“I have broken into the Palace Imperial in the company of two foreign spies, one of whom is a wanted traitor and the other of whom is suspected of having assassinated a high noble of the realm as well as the Queen of a neighbouring province long regarded as a rightful vassal. Since illegally entering the aforementioned Palace I have slain several more of Her Majesty’s devoted subjects and guards. I am now aiding and abetting in the performance of some doubtless forbidden ritual designed to undermine the power of the spell that is winning the war for Sardea. Have I missed anything out?”
“I could see how your enemies might put a negative interpretation on your deeds, but you missed my point.”
“You call this bad.”
“Not compared to some of the situations I have been in.”
“Perhaps you would care to while away the time before legions of our enemies appear by describing one or two of them to me.”
“I was once stuck in a coffin plunging from leagues above the clouds along with an unconscious Queen while a Nerghul battered away at the outside.”
“You are exaggerating.”
“Not at all. If anything I understate the peril of the situation.”
“Out of modesty, no doubt.”
“I do not like to boast.”
“Modesty is your greatest asset.” Behind them Asea had begun to chant. The hair on Rik’s neck began to stand as he sensed the flow of mystical power curdling the air behind him.
“When did this happen?”
“After I single-handedly broke into the Serpent Tower and freed the imprisoned heir to the Kharadrean throne. It turned out that the Tower itself was some kind of ancient star-faring vessel and it was returning to the place from whence it came.”
“I am gratified to be in the presence of such a hero.” Rik was certain that he could hear men approaching now. They were coming in great numbers. It would not be long now before the guards arrived. He hoped they were not bringing more of the guardians with them.
“Then there was the time when we broke into the lost city of Achenar, wiped out the last remnants of an Elder race and banished a demon god.”
“I begin to understand why you decided to come along on this mission. To a man of your accomplishments this must seem a mere bagatelle, a thing hardly worthy of your talents.”
“It whiles away an otherwise dull hour in a dull city.”
“I find that, like your presence, oddly reassuring.”
“I am gratified to hear it.” The flow of immense energy around them grew stronger. Asea’s voice was raised to a scream. He took another glance at her. A glowing nimbus of light surrounded her, so bright that it was almost dazzling. Even after he looked away the outline of her form still blazed upon his retina.
“Do you think she is all right?” Tamara asked.
“You would know more of these things than I.”
“I am beginning to doubt that.”
“We’ve escaped from tighter situations than this. We were surrounded by the city guard in Halim. The Quan had closed the seaways to us and the only way from the city was over water.”
“Naturally this provided no insuperable obstacle to a man like yourself.”
“The Lady Asea managed to get most of a company of us out in balloons, wafted over the walls, swamps and water by the power of her magic.”
“Perhaps she might be able to do the same for us here.”
“I am not hopeful.”
“You will have to arrange our exit yourself then.”
“Such thoughts had crossed my mind.”
A mass of uniformed men surged in at both ends of the corridor. They carried muskets and they looked like they knew how to use them.
“It was a bit thoughtless of the Lady Asea to destroy the door to this chamber when she entered,” said Tamara. “Otherwise we could have simply sealed it and barred the entrance.”
“Doubtless she felt the need to make a spectacular entrance.” At the far end of the corridor men raised their muskets. They did not seem at all keen to ask any questions of intruders, merely to fire their weapons.
“Might I suggest that we step back into the chamber and out of the line of sight of these would-be marksmen?”
“A capital suggestion. Let us suit actions to words.”
They threw themselves backwards as the first musket balls peppered the walls all around them.
“They do not seem keen to negotiate,” observed Tamara.
“Doubtless they fear our power,” said Rik. “They know we must have slaughtered the Guardians of the Gate and thus have proven ourselves foes of supernatural strength.”
“Their fears are justified given your amazing exploits in the past. Perhaps it is time for you to stride forth and slaughter them. After that, you can clear the Palace and declare me Empress.”
“I am surprised to hear you voice such treasonous sentiments towards your rightful liege.”
“I apologise. I was merely carried away by the excitement of the moment and your overwhelmingly heroic presence.”
Outside things suddenly went quiet. Rik risked a glance to see why. A monstrous figure advanced down the corridor towards them while the soldiers looked on with horror written on their faces.
“What in the name of the Light is that?” Rik asked.
“It has nothing to do with the Light,” Tamara said. “Lord Xephan has come himself.”
There was fear in her voice that communicated itself to Rik.
Rik had never seen anything quite like Lord Xephan before. Spiked armour encased the Terrarch's form. Something about it reminded him of the Nerghul, that strange creation of alchemy and necromancy. It was a carapace of rotted muscle and fused bone.
Its movement was like watching exposed sinew and cartilage flex and spasm as a patient writhed in agony under a surgeon's saw. The armour seemed alive but a moment's consideration told him that this was the wrong word. It was undead in exactly the same way as the walking corpses created by the plague.
A monstrous crest of bone rose from Xephan’s back, webs of flesh woven between it like some strange sail. They burned with sorcerous power, drawing energy from the Black Mirror. The thing was the product of the darkest sorcery and the mere fact that Lord Xephan dared wear it here told Rik that he was either desperate or supremely confident.
The armour made Xephan much larger and bulkier, at least a head taller than Rik and Rik was a tall man. Only Xephan's face was exposed; its delicate Terrarch beauty incongruous amidst the horror framing it.
His gaze met Xephan's and something passed between them, the knowledge of shared sins. In some ways, for Rik, it was like looking in a mirror. The Terrarch’s ecstatic face spoke of unspeakable appetites and strange sorcery. Rik knew without having to be told that he was in the presence of someone who practised thanatomancy.
Lord Xephan gestured for the soldiers to step back and they did so, only too gladly, obviously wanting to put as much distance between them as possible. Tamara stepped forward into the corridor as soon as she was certain that she was not going to be shot. Xephan sketched a bow. His movements were obscenely delicate given the enormous bulk and power the armour lent him.
"Tamara," he said. "I confess that you're the last person I expected to see here. When the alarm was given I thought it was one of my comrades making a bid for power. Oh well, perhaps I was right anyway even though I thought that you had defected to the other side."
"What are you going to do about your soldiers now that they've seen you in your fine new raiment? You surely can't let them live. Or are they all sworn to the Shadow as well?"
Rik knew that she was speaking for the benefit of the soldiers, letting them know what was going on here, hoping that they would rebel if he knew exactly who it was they were serving. He doubted that it would work but it was worth a try. Anything that bought time to let Asea close the Gate was.
"It's nice to see that you still have your wits about you, Tamara, but your sharp words will have no affect on the loyalty of these brave warriors. They can see through your tricks. They know that my magic is used only for the benefit of the Empire."
Rik could hear the subtle sorcery in his words. It was the same sort of magic that he had suspected Joran of and which he knew that Lord Azaar practised. It was magic intended to sway the hearer and make them believe in the speaker’s words. Such casual use of magic made him envious.
"By that I take it that you mean the men will be dead by the end of the day. Thus you will repay their loyalty."
"You are a persistent, lovely Tamara, but come — you have not introduced me to your friend. I do not recognise him as one of our Brotherhood although I can see that he shares some of our favoured practices."
"Why don't you ask him? He can speak for himself."
"No need. I can guess who he is. There's only one person he really could be, isn't there? I believe that this is the famous half-breed Rik. Am I right?"
"What if he is?"
"Then you are, as I suspect, a traitor and you've brought an enemy into the very heart of our realm. The question is why? Why have you brought Asea's puppet here?" Lord Xephan smiled. The expression was eerie, written as it was on that beautiful face floating above the magical armour of fused bone and animated rotting flesh. "Of course, you've come to either close the Gate or destroy it. That’s it, isn't it?"
"We've come to destroy you," said Rik.
"It speaks. I am honoured. I had thought I knew everyone who practised our ancient art. I am astonished to learn that this was not the case. You will tell me how you mastered our secrets, won't you? I don't suppose you'll have any choice once you're strapped to the dissection table."
"I learned thanatomancy from the same man who taught you," Rik lied, just to see what the response would be.
"Ah, my dear old master has been busy. I don't suppose I should be surprised that there were things he did not tell me. Are there any more like you?"
"Dozens," said Rik.
"You interest me. We shall discuss this further, under circumstances that I fear will not be much to your liking."
Rik wondered how Asea was doing. There was something about Lord Xephan that made him deeply uneasy. He doubted whether he and Tamara would be able to stop the Terrarch when and if he decided to enter the chamber.
"I will give you this one chance to surrender," Xephan said. "If you do not, you will suffer the consequences of disobedience."
"Your offer might have seemed more generous if you had not explained what was going to happen to us once we were in your power," said Tamara.
"I suppose that was rather thoughtless of me," said Xephan. "In all the excitement, one rather tends to lose sight of these things."
"I don't suppose you would consider surrendering to us?" said Rik. "I may be inclined to spare your life."