The Queen's Assassin
The city of Halim burned. Flames leapt from the red-tiled roofs. Drifting clouds of black smoke obscured the ancient walls.
The rolling thunder of cannon-fire assaulted Rik's ears as the guns pounded away at the capital of the nation of Kharadrea. One of the disadvantages of his privileged position on this hillside overlooking the doomed metropolis was its proximity to the batteries of huge siege weapons.
He was a tall, slim, fair-haired man. The fine scarlet tunic he wore emphasised the Terrarch half of his heritage, making him look every inch one of his world's inhuman rulers, leaving no trace of the grubby street urchin he once had been. He stroked the pommel of his sword as he watched the fortifications crumble, glad for the moment that he did not have to be down there, preparing to enter the inferno of battle that was so soon to come.
Rik shielded his large almond-shaped eyes with the long fingers of one hand, and squinted down. The trampled fields around the city seethed with soldiers in the red uniforms of Talorea. Massed regiments of infantry hunkered down amid a labyrinth of trenches, waiting to attack. Squadrons of cavalry grouped to their rear. Monstrous bridgeback wyrms, reptilian quadrupeds as large as a house, bellowed challenges as they made their way towards the front-line. Their long necks snaked skyward. Troops filled the howdahs on their backs. The defenders lining the wall responded with obscenities and defiance.
Near where Rik stood, in the cleared area between two batteries of siege guns, groups of sorcerers performed arcane rituals, warding the troops below from hostile magic and directing their own spells at the enemy. All of them were Terrarchs, taller and thinner than humans, with beautiful high cheek-boned faces and hair fine as spun silver. Their ears were pointed and their eyes almond-shaped and huge. Their lips were thin and cruel, and all of them had the arrogance of the undisputed lords of creation. They were God's Chosen, and they felt it to the marrow of their bones.
Among them, standing alone and nearest to him, was the Terrarch noblewoman responsible for Rik's rise from the gutter to the outer reaches of Talorean society: the Lady Asea. Today she was garbed for battle. Magical armour clung to her tall, spare figure. A silver mask with a dark gem in the centre covered the upper half of her lovely face. Her long thick silver hair was braided and held by a clasp at her neck. In her hand she held a ritual wand, used to bind and guide the creatures she would soon summon. Tall urns stood within a circle of strange runes laid out in multi-coloured salts. Each contained a bound elemental.
Rik envied Asea her power and her confidence. For months now, all through the long summer of campaigning, she had been teaching him the rudiments of magic, but he was a long way from even the beginnings of mastery. Despite his best efforts he could get not even the simplest spell to work. He supposed he should be grateful to be here at all. As senior mage attached to the army, Asea enjoyed many privileges and one of them was having her favourites present in this specially screened area near where she had inscribed the circles and Elder Signs of her calling.
A flicker of movement in the northern sky grabbed Rik's attention.
A flight of dragons streaked across the heavens, wings spread, exhalations of flame bursting from their nostrils. Traceries of energy danced around them as the defenders lobbed alchemical weapons into their path and the wizards of the besieged city invoked powerful spells. The great winged reptiles kept their line. Destructive spheres, each as large as a barrel of ale, arced down from the dragons and exploded on the rooftops adding their freight of destruction to the inferno below.
A murmur of dismay rose from the nearby wizards. As if born of this new torrent of flame, a massive fiery humanoid was taking form over the burning city. At first Rik could not tell whether it belonged to the defenders or his own side but he got his answer soon enough. The fire giant gathered all the flames into itself and leapt skyward, aiming for the dragons. Even at a distance of over a league, Rik could hear his crackling roar. The dragon flight split, one section veering left, the other right, the other heading straight up. The elemental bellowed its frustrated fury and sprang towards the army of its tormentors.
Fear filled Rik for a moment. The sorcerous thing was tall as a six-storey tenement building and much larger than a bridgeback wyrm. It looked capable of defeating the entire Talorean army on its own. As it walked, the flames of the burning city leapt to it, increasing its size even as it damped out the fires on the buildings within the walls.
Asea stood within a circle rimmed with Elder Signs. She was the greatest of the Talorean sorcerers, and this hill had been chosen to give her a view of the whole battlefield and to let her protect the battery of siege artillery nearby. A whole regiment of infantry was posted downslope to protect her. Two squadrons of cavalry waited nearby.
As the fire elemental left the city, the warding spells protecting the besieging army took their toll. Parts of its body broke off and spluttered out as it moved. It tried to reach down to the troops below but enchantments protected them. Only once did it break through and lift the swiftly blackening form of some poor soldier from the mass. Rik prayed it was nobody he knew. The Seventh, his old regiment, was down there getting ready to storm the city when the walls finally gave way.
Asea began to chant. A glow appeared on the lid of one of the urns in front of her. Rik has seen its like before in the ruins beneath the demon-haunted city of Deep Achenar. That one had contained a bound fire elemental. This urn looked different. The binding was blue crystal; the Elder Sign on its side resembled a snowflake. Asea's chant rose in pitch even as the fiery behemoth came closer.
Cracks appeared on the seal of Asea's casket. Rik hoped she could complete her ritual in time. The frustrated fire giant had given up attacking the soldiers and was coming straight at them now, as if guided by some malign intelligence that knew only too well that they were there despite the spells of concealment that were supposed to shield their position. It moved faster than a destrier could charge, and its size became all the more intimidating as it drew nearer.
The urn broke open. Wisps of mist, cold and clammy as fog on a winter morning, emerged. Rik felt very chilly. The fog rushed skyward. Snowflakes and cold droplets of rain formed the gigantic outline of a man sculpted from snow-clouds. Within it, small tornadoes stirred the cold air.
Asea spoke orders in a language that Rik had never heard. The elemental’s reply echoed within his head, a voice of arctic chill that held the power of a chained hurricane. If a storm in the iceberg-filled Northern seas had a voice it would sound like that, he thought.
The approaching fire elemental gave another crackling roar. Sensing the presence of an ancient enemy, the storm elemental rushed to meet it, its body flowing in tattered streamers, like clouds driven before a powerful wind. It fell on its foe like a blanket thrown over a fire. Tentacles of flame tore into cold clouds.
Where the fire elemental passed the grass was blackened and scorched. Where the storm elemental had stood it shone with a coating of ice. The stench of ozone filled the air. Lightning flickered around the storm elemental and lashed the flame creature. It responded by breathing jets of fire into its foe.
For long moments it was impossible to tell which was winning. Asea unleashed another storm elemental. It leapt into the fray and soon it and its brother had reduced the fire being to a thing the size of a small bonfire. It dwindled down to a candle flame and then vanished entirely. The two storm elementals headed for the walls of the city, aiming for a gap blown in the stonework by cannon fire. In those places the warding spells in the walls were damaged or broken entirely. The storm things made their way into the city, the first of the Taloreans’ sorcerously summoned creatures to do so.
Asea paused in her chanting for a moment and poured herself a goblet of some golden fluid. She looked weary, but the potion revitalized her, and she gave her attention back to the battlefield, scanning it for more magical threats. Beneath them on the plain surrounding the city, horns sounded and drums answered them.
Catapults lobbed crystal spheres over the city walls. The translucent balls shattered on impact. Some of them contained alchemical fire. Others sent clouds of poisonous gas spreading through the streets. Inside the walls of the nearest part of Halim, it must seem very much like hell, Rik thought.
Down below the lads would be readying their siege ladders, and checking their weapons. Sergeant Hef, Weasel and the Barbarian would all be getting ready to follow Lieutenant Sardec into the fray.
He wondered what they were thinking at this moment.
Lieutenant Sardec watched the human soldiers of the First Company of the Seventh Talorean Foot Regiment rally round their flag and prepare for battle. They were easy enough to spot. All of his men wore the green tunic of the light infantry company, the so-called Foragers. Today all of them had thick scarlet sashes looped around their chests too. Green was the colour of the enemy militia, and it would not do to be mistaken for them.
The tall Terrarch officer found the farewells oddly moving. Men embraced their wives and children, and shouldered their packs and their rifles. Some of the camp followers wept and wailed, others maintained a stoic silence. His own paramour, the human woman Rena, met his eyes and gave him a wave. He gave her an icy nod in return and made a small gesture with the steel hook that replaced his sword hand. He would have liked to have done more but such was not the way things were between Terrarch officer and human woman. The Elder Race needed to maintain their dignity at all times, if they were to be taken seriously as leaders, and it would not do to have his men witness an undignified farewell between him and his lover.
What did it matter? Why should he care about dignity and position now? In a few minutes, he might be dead. But it did matter to him, so he restrained himself and gave his attention back to the conflict.
It was hard to tell what was going on. The line infantry had already been dispatched into the gaps in Halim's walls. He could hear the rattle of musket fire and the shouts and screams of combat. This was it, he thought, the final assault, the end of nearly four weeks of manoeuvring outside the Kharadrean capital. First the bastions surrounding the city had been taken, then the siege equipment had been rolled up onto the nearby hills and the levelling of the city walls had begun.
So far it had seemed almost too easy. There had been no interference from the Dark Empire. No massive eastern army had emerged to challenge the siege. It looked like the Talorean plan to have three armies sweep across the border, in different locations north to south, and encircle the capital had been successful.
Not entirely, he reminded himself. So far there was no sign of the Army of the North. It had not made the rendezvous, had been bogged down fighting guerrillas en route. Fortunately it looked like the combined forces of Lord Elakar's Army of the East and Lord Azaar's Army of the South would be strong enough to take their objective. By the end of this first campaigning season the Kharadrean capital would be in Talorean hands. It was a stunning victory for his nation.
Where were the Sardeans, he wondered? Why had they not shown their hand? Everyone had expected the armies of the Dark Empress to respond with full force but so far there had been nothing but vague reports of regiments moving in the very far east of Kharadrea. Had the Talorean strike been so unexpected? Had they achieved total surprise over their foes? Or had their enemies expected the Western armies to be delayed by other things.
That seemed possible. The Taloreans had been very lucky. The rising in the hills by the Prophet Zarahel and his followers could have pinned down Azaar's army for months had it not been successfully quelled. Lord Ilmarec could have held them forever at the Serpent Tower had he not been overcome in such a spectacular way by Asea's protege, the half-breed soldier, Rik.
Sardec quashed a flash of jealousy. The half-breed's destruction of the Serpent Tower and his rescue of Kathea, the Talorean-supported candidate for the Kharadrean throne, from the clutches of her treacherous uncle had saved the campaign in the South from certain defeat. It had also completely overshadowed his own victory over Lord Esteril. It was the talk of the entire army and had turned the half-breed from an outcast into something like a hero. There was even talk of Queen Arielle herself recognising him for his services.
Sardec told himself that any such recognition was well deserved. Rik had saved them all from certain destruction at the hands of the mad sorcerer and his potent alien weaponry. The youth had certainly come a long way in a very short time. It did not seem all that long ago that Sardec had ordered him whipped for insubordination. Now he was forced to treat him as an equal when they met in Lord Azaar's tent.
Sardec shrugged. Such matters were of little moment now. His business was to get through the next few hours and see that as many of his men survived as possible. Rena thought the shrug was meant for her, and turned her gaze away. A small sliver of misery entered Sardec's heart, but he let no sign of it show on his face. He would make it up to her, somehow, some way — if he survived today.
A horn sounded. Troops retreated through the gap in the wall. It looked like the Talorean infantry might have been thrown back but it was hard to tell. Drums beat around him. That was the signal for his own lads to enter the fray. The killing time was upon them. He strode over to tiny monkey-faced Sergeant Hef.
"It's time to move out," he said.
"Yes, sir," said the Sergeant. He gave the signal to the men around him. They raised their weapons and began to head towards the walls. Nobody looked particularly keen, but that was only to be expected. Sieges were the roughest sort of warfare known to man or Terrarch. There was only one compensation and now seemed the right time to mention it.
"Come on, lads," said Sardec. "Time to get our share of the loot!"
The Foragers cheered. How many of them would be live to spend their ill-gotten gains, Sardec wondered.
Rik watched the lines of soldiers advance into the gaps in the walls. Oily smoke obscured the clear early autumn sky. More dragons approached. At this distance it was not possible to tell to which side they belonged. Since they were coming from the city and heading directly for this hill, it seemed likely they were the enemy. There were only three of them and they seemed quite small, although that was a relative term when it came to such creatures. All of the approaching monsters were capable of taking a man down at a gulp.
"It's fair to say that our concealment spells have been penetrated," said Asea. She has the sorcerer's trick of making her voice carry without seeming to speak any louder than in conversation. She did not sound particularly bothered for a woman who might soon come under attack by dragons. He envied her that calm and the two thousand years she had taken to develop it.
The position of the mages had been hidden by powerful weaves of illusion. Perhaps the spell had failed or perhaps someone on the walls over there had simply deduced their location. In either case the effects would be the same. They could expect to come under concentrated attack from now on.
Rik glanced at the earthworks surrounding their position. Skywatchers, units of specially trained marksmen set up for exactly this purpose, stared at the oncoming dragons, and readied their long rifles. Behind them Karl Mandrake, the squat and massive Wyrm Hunter, hefted one of his special weapons, a rifle that looked more like a small cannon. More such stood ready in a rack close at hand. Next to them was a two handed broadsword smeared with dreadful looking poison. Karl noted Rik's interest. A broad grin split his ugly, pockmarked face.
The Talorean mages started to filter away from their conjuring circles and into the bunkers below until only Asea remained standing in her place of power. Rik could not decide whether to go below or not. He wanted to see what happened, and if the bunkers collapsed he would be buried alive. On the other hand, standing in the path of an oncoming dragon did not seem to be the best way of prolonging his life.
Asea glanced around and saw that all the other mages were gone. "Join me, Rik," she said. "Be careful not to step on any lines of the circle. Come in through the approach vector."
Rik took a deep breath and nodded although he was not sure her caution was necessary. A normal person would have disturbed those etched lines focusing her magic by simply passing over them. But he was not a normal person. He was a Shadowblood, descended from a race of magically created assassins. His presence would most likely not even register if he passed over the spell's boundaries. It was one reason why Asea was so interested in his career.
Even so he was careful to enter the circle through the two parallel lines that bisected its rear. He did not want anyone spotting how different he was. He found himself standing beside his patron. She was taller than he, though he was a tall man. The hood of her leather armour flowed into position, covering her head. The silver mask moulded itself to her features and reflected the solemn expression beneath.
"Now comes the test," she said. "Keep your sword ready."
Rik did not know what good it would do against fifty tons of winged reptilian fury but he drew his blade. Runes glowed along its length as they caught the eddy currents of magical energy. She had gifted him this weapon on his return from the Serpent Tower. It was an ancient blade brought from her homeworld, Al'Terra. He presumed it must have some power.
All around them the cannons roared. The dragons dropped lower as they began their long, looping approach sweep. The armoured figures of their riders were clearly visible now.
What must it be like to ride on of those things, Rik wondered?
Fires billowed from the dragons' nostrils. Alchemical eggs dangled from the chains on their chest. The colours of their harness were the green and yellow of Kharadrea, not the red and black of Talorea. On banners fitted to the back of the riders’ saddles, the dragon symbol of Halim fluttered in the wind.
The Skywatchers opened fire with their rifles, aiming at the riders and the explosive fire spheres they controlled. Just one of those things could wipe out their position if it was on target. There was a lot of gunpowder around here. Even locked in brass bound barrels marked with the Elder Sign of ice, it might explode. There had been such failures of warding before and they had turned the course of battles. The stored gunpowder of an entire artillery battery would make a terrible mess if it went up. Whoever had directed those dragons to this position knew exactly what he was doing.
Bullets tore at the dragons' scales, smashed into the metal spheres on their necks. One dragon rider keeled over. His thick sorcerously reinforced plate armour made him all but immune to bullets but it looked like the straps holding him into his saddle had come undone and the force of the impact sent him tumbling out of it to hit the ground a hundred feet below. Not even his armour would let him survive that. His dragon, out of control, lifted skywards, unable to decide what to do next.
The Skywatchers were on form today. Another storm of bullets detonated an alchemical egg hanging from the second dragon's chest. A chain reaction erupted as the second and third eggs went up. Rik bit back a moan of fear. For that to happen he knew the devices must have been armed. Things were getting very close. The second dragon plunged down. The ground shook with the impact as it ploughed into the fortifications. Wooden palisades give way and trenches collapsed as it skidded forward.
The third dragon released its freight of incendiary death. Rik saw three silver spheres tumble towards the ground spinning as they went. On impact they exploded. A wall of acrid, stinking flame roared towards him. He heard the screams of dying Skywatchers, the explosions of loaded muskets and then a curtain of flame obscured his sight.
Sardec rushed forward into the gap between the tumbled walls. Powder-reek and blood-stench filled his nostrils. The whole area was a shell-smashed abattoir. The mangled bodies of men sprawled everywhere, gore bespattered, clammy and missing limbs. Some had been caught beneath falling masonry. Others had been blown apart by cannonball and mortar shell.
Above them a man kicked part of the loose stonework, obviously intending to tumble it onto the fighting beneath. He did not seem to care that he might hit his own fellows as well as any invaders.
Sardec gestured to Weasel and pointed up. The tall, skinny bald-headed Forager grinned, a mad fearless grin, raised his long-barrelled rifle to his shoulder and snapped off a shot. The would-be demolitionist’s head exploded.
Under perfect conditions it would have been a difficult shot, but here amid the screams and howls of battle and the drifting clouds of powder smoke, it was an awesome one. The former poacher deserved his reputation as the best marksman in the company.
The Foragers plunged into the gap. Sardec fought alongside the Barbarian, a huge northerner with a walrus moustache and a head fringed by long blonde hair, his bald crown visible now he had lost his tricorne hat. He grasped a hill-man fighting knife the size of a short-sword in one hand, and bayonet in the other. Moving with a terrifying controlled fury, the Barbarian cut a brutal red swathe through the melee, carving a path for the rest of the Foragers to follow.
Behind them came Sergeant Hef. Beside him Handsome Jan, dapper as ever even in the midst of this howling maelstrom, carried the company flag. The bullet-riddled banner depicting a naked dragon-winged female on a black background fluttered proudly. Sardec moved towards it slashing with the hook that replaced his right hand, keeping his pistol ready in his left.
"Onwards, lads!" he shouted. "Carve up these bastards!"
Two massive elementals fought above the nearby rooftops. A whirlwind locked in a death battle with a column of fire. The winds of the battle sent all manner of trash flashing down the street. Clouds of dust obscured Sardec's vision and brought tears to his eyes.
Suddenly they were out of the breach and into the rubble-filled streets beyond. Sardec felt cobbles beneath his boots. He glared along a narrow alley between tall burning tenements. This was not good. Those building might come down at any time killing Talorean and Kharadrean alike. The alleys could easily become a death trap. They needed to get into the clearer streets beyond. He caught Handsome Jan's attention and pointed forward. The soldier understood and waved the flag.
They raced onwards, flames burning all around.
Rik flinched, expecting to feel the wave of heat pass over him and his new dress tunic ignite. The wall of flame parted, lapping around the circle of protection like tidal water around a rock. The temperature increased but not by as much as he had feared. A halo of light played around Asea's head as she used her magic to protect them.
An enormous shadow passed overhead. It was the third enemy dragon. Was it turning to make another attack run or had its rider decided to return to the city in the face of such determined opposition?
The wall of flame died away, and Rik caught sight of the carnage it had left in its wake. All of the grass on the hillside below was gone save within Asea's circle. Oily black covered the area where it had been. Dozens of Skywatchers lay dead in their trenches, skins scorched by the alchemical fire. Still more sprawled nearby, screaming in agony.
The enormous body of the dragon lay in the furrow it had ploughed. Its tail twitched and its long neck snaked upwards. It shook itself and drew itself erect. Its titanic wings, larger than the sails of a galleon, snapped open. Rik could tell by the way they did so that something was broken. The great ribs over which leathery flesh stretched poked out through the skin. This dragon was not going to fly again. It was hurt and very angry.
Hissing like a huge kettle it staggered forward. Greenish blood splattered its scales. Its dead rider lolled in the saddle, his broken limbs moving in a parody of a cheerful wave. Standing on its hind legs, balanced by its enormous tail, it was at least ten times Rik's height. He stood there frozen, feeling like a rat confronted by a tiger.
"This is not good," said Asea, revealing what Rik thought was a great gift for understatement.
Sardec led the Foragers into an open square. In the centre a fountain played, water emerging from the mouth of a statue of a river dragon. All around were more corpses, their faces purple, their skin blotched. Sardec sniffed the air. It still held a hint of the bitter scent of poison gas. It must have happened some time ago, he thought. The elementals passage had blown the gas away. The Foragers had been very lucky not to emerge into the cloud themselves.
A few terrified women and children milled in confusion. Already some of the soldiers were starting to pull the women aside, tearing at their skirts.
"That's enough!" Sardec bellowed, grabbing the nearest man. He put his hook against the man's groin. "Any more and I'll have your nuts off."
The girl looked at him gratefully and raced for the nearest doorway.
"You heard the Lieutenant," shouted Sergeant Hef. "There will be time enough for raping and looting when the fighting is done."
That was not exactly what Sardec had meant but it would have to suffice for the moment. He glared around trying to work out what to do now. They were in the city and seemed to have hit a temporary lull in the fighting. If he did not give the men something to do quickly, discipline would go and the looting would start. He had nothing against looting as such, but there was a time and a place for it, and that was after you were sure the enemy was beaten.
A bridgeback wyrm loomed out of the smoke behind them. At first Sardec was not sure whether it was friend or foe. He was only aware of the great quadruped’s bulk and the way the small, reptilian eyes glared down at him from a beaked head that snaked ever closer. Fear and fury filled those tiny eyes. It obviously did not like being amid the smoke and flames despite all its training and the shouts and prodding of its mahout.
Sardec wondered if his time had come, but the wyrm swept past him, and he heard the friendly cries from the infantry in the howdah, and saw the black dragon on a red background flag fluttering on the howdah's pennants. He breathed a sigh of relief. This was one of their own.
A group of men rushed out of a side alley. They slashed at the wyrm's ankles as it passed, trying to hamstring it, keeping in so close it was all but impossible for the men on its back to shoot at them. The wyrm danced frantically as it tried to avoid the sting of blades. The howdah came dangerously close to jarring loose.
"Get them," Sardec shouted. Some of the Foragers raised their rifles and muskets and fired. Others drew fighting knives or charged with fixed bayonets, sweeping forward to overwhelm the outnumbered Kharadreans.
Only as the fizzing fused grenade arced out of the alley mouth did Sardec realise that it was a trap. "Get down," he shouted, as the bomb exploded in the midst of the melee.
"Bastard," he heard someone shout, inside the alley. "You've killed our lads too." Moments later a green-tunicked Terrarch officer raced out of the alley pursued by enraged humans. He slipped on the blood of the men he had just bombed and looked up at Sardec with pleading in his eyes. He seemed very young, about Sardec's own age, and quite shocked, as if he had not expected his men to turn on him for his deed.
"Help me," the Kharadrean shouted. Sardec looked at the corpses of the men his fellow Terrarch had cold-bloodedly killed and shook his head.
"Kill him," he said to Weasel.
"With pleasure, sir," the sniper replied, putting a bullet through the officer's head. Sardec understood the dead Terrarch's logic easily enough. He had got a few of his men killed in exchange for a larger number of Sardec's humans. To him, it must have seemed a sensible trade and there would have been a time when Sardec would have agreed with that thinking. Now, he could no longer countenance it.
A moment later he realised he had more important problems. The wyrm, wounded by the grenade, and frightened by the explosion, was running amok, out of its mahout's control. Despite all of the rider's efforts it was turning on the men around it, uncaring of their allegiance. Turtle-beaked jaws, capable of shearing a man in half with one bite, descended inexorably closer.
Rik gazed up at the dragon in awe and wonder. His sword felt pitifully inadequate in his hand. He drew his pistol. If it tried to bite him he would try for the creature's eyes. There was a vanishingly small chance he could put a bullet through its brain. The dragon's jaws opened wider, revealing row upon row of razor sharp teeth. It seemed amused by his presumption. In the creature's place, Rik thought, he would probably feel the same.
Asea began to chant again. Rik knew she was too late. By the time she completed her ritual the great reptile would have crashed through her wards and devoured them. Trying to control the shaking of his hand, he raised the pistol, sighted along its length and pulled the trigger. Smoke billowed forth. The dragon screamed. The bullet had penetrated its eye. A jet of flame erupted from its nostrils, spraying upward. The smell of its sulphurous breath filled the air.
There was a loud bang from behind them. Something whooshed over Rik's head. A massive wound appeared in the dragon's breast. Behind him someone cursed. It was Karl Mandrake, the Wyrm Hunter. Somehow he had survived. Perhaps the wall of flame has not reached him. It was possible if he had been standing directly behind Asea’s circle.
Rik knelt and began reloading his pistol. It was a forlorn hope but force of habit, imposed by training, sent him to it. It was the only thing he could do except turn and run, and fleeing would get him a massive claw in his back. There was no way he could move faster than this gigantic thing.
The dragon's tail lashed the air in fury, cracking like an enormous whip. It leaned forward, its huge shadow falling across Rik. Its massive paw smashed down, hitting one of the containment urns, shattering it under the force of the blow. Something demonic and cold leaked out. Rik did not need to be told that it was not under control. The elemental simply emerged, unchained, and the dragon was the first thing it saw. The elemental surged upward, adopting a vaguely humanoid shape. Perhaps there was some sort of antipathy, of ice and fire, between them, for its fury was directed entirely at the monstrous reptile.
The dragon flexed its wings and tried to become airborne, but its ruined pinions would not carry it. It turned its head towards the elemental and breathed fire. The elemental began to shrivel like spider-web burned with a torch. It twisted aside. Lightning lashed the dragon. The smell of ozone filled the air. Sparks leapt from the barrel of Rik's pistol. His hair stood on end.
As the dragon writhed and fought, it threatened to crush them beneath its bulk. Already one massive paw descended where Asea stood. Rik leapt forward pushing her aside by sheer force of momentum. A heartbeat later a titanic foot descended where she had been.
The two of them lay sprawled on the ground, looking up at the primordial figures battling above them. It looked as if a tornado enshrouded the dragon. It lashed out with its tail and its fiery breath, bellowing deafening challenges audible even above the roar of the unleashed winds. The storm elemental was already losing shape, but its lightning had scorched whole areas of the dragon's flesh, removing scales, revealing blotched pinkish skin beneath.
Rik's sword lay in the dirt where he had dropped it. Instinctively he reached for it, not sure what he could do with such a puny weapon but determined that he would go out fighting. Another thunderous bang sounded behind Rik. He rolled over and saw the squat bulky figure of Karl Mandrake, a huge gun smoking in his hands. A metal mask covered his face. He shook his head in disbelief that the dragon yet lived and raced back towards his weapon's rack. Rik wished him luck.
He crawled forward and stabbed at the dragon's leg with his sword. The strange metal of the blade slid through the scales as if they were water but it was like attacking an ox with a needle. The creature ignored him. It was too wrapped up in its death struggle with the elemental.
Sanity smacked Rik in the face. This was no place for him. He looked over at Asea. She still lay there stunned. He rushed over, grabbed her by the hand, and tugged her to her feet. There was an odd blankness in her eyes. Rik had heard that having a spell interrupted when you cast it could cause all manner of complications. This was the first evidence he had seen that it might be true. He tugged at her, dragging her towards the nearby trenches, hoping that the dragon would ignore them once they were out of sight.
He breathed a sigh of relief as he pushed Asea into the trench and jumped in beside her. If they just kept their heads down, they might yet have a chance to survive. The dragon's blood sizzled and hissed on his blade, wisps of smoke rising as it evaporated. He wondered if this was normal or whether it had something to do with the sword. If they got out of this alive, he would ask the sorceress.
The earth shook as the monstrous beast writhed and twisted in pursuit of its foe. Rik risked a peek over the lip of the trench and saw that its movements had become erratic and pinkish froth billowed from its lips. Its fires seemed to have gone out. The elemental had vanished but still the dragon fought against something invisible. Perhaps its eyes could see what Rik's could not.
Its movements became slower and jerkier. They had a spasmodic feverish quality. A man landed in the trench beside Rik. It was Karl Mandrake, yet another massive gun in his hands. Carefully he took aim and fired. The heavy bullet smashed into the dragon's flesh and this time Rik noticed what he had not before. The wound was bigger than it ought to be, even given the bore of the Wyrm Hunter's weapon. A huge chunk of scales had been blown away and something metallic, perhaps splinters of a metal shell glittered where they were embedded in flesh.
The dragon bellowed again, but there was a wheezing quality to its roar now that had not been there before. Its long neck looped spastically, its jaws snapped at random. It raised itself to its full height. From nearby a cannon roared. Some gunner had managed to swing his weapon back into action. Its ball impacted on the wounded dragon, knocking it over backwards. A monstrous gout of blood erupted from its shattered ribcage. Its tail twitched.
Relief flooded Rik as he realised the creature was dying. There was a chance that they might get out of this alive yet.
"It's dead," Rik shouted to Karl Mandrake.
"It was dead from the time I first shot it."
"How can you be so certain?"
"The bullets were laced with dragonbane and notched so they broke up on impact. The poison was spread all through its body. It was only a matter of time before it went down."
"The cannon shot might have had something to do with it too."
Karl whipped away his mask. His brutal features were twisted in a crazed feral grin. "Aye, they might have," he said. "But I reckon you and I might still get medals for this."
"Do notched bullets really split up?" Rik asked just to have something to say.
"Aye — it's a nasty thing to do, but so is lacing them with poison in the first place."
Rik could not disagree with that.
Sardec leapt aside as the Wyrm raced by. He roared at the Foragers to take cover and prayed that none of them would be crushed. Moments later the out of control monster vanished down the street into the smoke and flames. He took stock. A bunch of corpses lay nearby. Smoke filled the air. Next to a wall a group of uniformed men had their hands held high while Weasel and the Barbarian stripped them of weapons. They were forcing the enemy soldiers to turn out their pockets and their purses as well, and Sardec saw no reason to stop them.
From somewhere up ahead a horn sounded a long sad note. He heard cheering and screams and then more cheering. The horn sounded again, and then drums began to beat a slow, inexorable rhythm. As if in answer to the horns call, temple bells began to ring. More Kharadrean soldier's emerged from the alleys around them and began to throw down their arms. They kept shouting that they surrendered, and slowly it dawned on Sardec that the horn and the bells must have been a pre-arranged signal.
Sergeant Hef rushed up to him. A Terrarch officer in the green uniform of the local militia accompanied him. His sword was held in the ritual position, hilt forward, balanced in the crook of his left arm.
"Are you in charge here, Lieutenant?" asked the enemy officer. His face was smeared with soot. His eyes had a curiously empty look. There was a listless quality to his voice.
"I am," Sardec replied.
"Then I would be honoured if you would accept my surrender and that of my men. It appears that Halim has fallen."
A broad smile spread across Sardec's lips. Enormous relief flooded through him. It looked like the siege was over and the Taloreans had won. Triumph filled him. They were victorious, and he was still alive to enjoy it. It looked like word had spread. Already the Foragers had begun to smash down doors and search within for their contents.
This would not do, Sardec thought.
"Get the men together, Sergeant," he said. "Why loot these hovels when there are palaces up ahead?"
Hef nodded understanding. "Why indeed, sir? Why indeed?"
Night lay over the camp of the victors. Funeral pyres burned bright as the still-blazing buildings within the city walls. The stink of burning flesh warred with incense. A vast space lay cleared between the tents of the Talorean commanders. In front of their pavilion stood the banners of the Armies of the South and of the East. In the middle of the southern edge of the impromptu square two high wooden thrones had been set up, and the Scarlet commanders sat waiting to accept the surrender of those they had conquered.
Rik stood slightly behind and to the right of Asea in the group of watching Taloreans. She seemed to have recovered entirely from the backlash of her spell earlier. Now she looked exactly as poised and beautiful as she normally did. She smiled with that slightly shocked look that most of the officers had. They had ended this campaigning season with a stunning victory. The capital of Kharadrea was in their hands, and its Generals and nobility were all making the pilgrimage out to their camp to offer their surrender. He and Asea were close to the front of the ranks of observers so he had a good view of the proceedings.
Rik studied the commanders closely. Lord Azaar was tall and lean. His body had a fragile wasted look. An antique silver mask obscured a face said to have been eaten away by some dread disease. His uniform was a simple functional red tunic. A long blade lay casually against the arm of the throne. His whole posture suggested fatigue and boredom.
By contrast General Elakar sat open faced, in the modern fashion. His features could have been the absolute model of Terrarch beauty cast in bronze. He looked as arrogant and cruel as a dragon lord. His uniform was a gorgeous confection of scarlet silk, gold braid and rune-embossed buttons. He held the formal jewelled sceptre of a Viceroy in his hands. Between the two Generals and above them was Kathea. The Taloreans had already acknowledged her Queen of Kharadrea. Now they held the city where the rulers of the country were formally crowned. She looked regal in a long gown of green and red, not at all like the bedraggled and frightened figure Rik had rescued from the Serpent Tower.
In the distance Rik heard the sound of music and merrymaking. He wondered how it was going in the city proper. An army freed from discipline and filled with relief at the end of a battle was a fearsome thing. Even its attempts to enjoy itself would be brutal. Rik guessed that many of the buildings that were alight in the city centre had not been when the western soldier's first entered the city. Many of the nobles who had come out to greet the Army's commanders were probably here as much for their own protection as to take part in the ritual of surrender.
A huge number of people formed the column that emerged from the open gates of the city. No servants were allowed. Nobles held their own personal glowglobes on the end of their wands. Apprehension was written on every Kharadrean face. They had defied the approaching army and refused to surrender even when their city was surrounded. According to the normal protocols of war, the attackers were entitled to do with them what they willed.
In truth they had very little choice. Their soldiers would expect something for the risks the defenders intransigence had forced them to run. The Talorean commanders had little option but to allow the traditional three days of rapine and looting. To do otherwise under the circumstances would have been to invite the mutiny of their own army. The question burning in the minds of the vanquished must be how much did the High Command of the Taloreans hold this against them?
As they entered the square Elakar raised his sceptre and soldiers moved to stop the Kharadreans. Another gesture and a delegation of Terrarch nobles was allowed to come closer.
"State your name," said Elakar. His voice was cold and cutting and gave no sign that he recognised the status of the defeated. If Lord Azaar resented having his fellow commander speak before him he gave no sign. If anything his posture became a fraction more bored and indolent. Kathea looked as if she wanted to speak, but dared not. She was not quite so secure in her power as the Taloreans wanted her people to think.
"I am Telarn Vashaka, Lord Governor of Halim," said a stately, silver-haired old Terrarch. His face was lined and his skin seemed parchment thin in the witchlight. An air of weariness and sadness hung over him like a cloud. How old was he really, Rik wondered? What might have been signs of ageing in a human were often signs of disease in a Terrarch.
"You are the one who chose to deny our legal request of surrender. You are the one who brought doom upon the people it was your lawful duty to protect."
"I acknowledge that Lord Elakar. I ask clemency only for my people, not for myself."
"The Queen's Soldiers were forced to fight. They have claimed their right of plunder."
"Surely you would not punish all the citizens of Halim for an old dotard's folly," said Telarn. It was obvious that he had chosen to take all the responsibility for what had happened upon himself, possibly in the hope that his family and friends would be spared. It would have seemed noble to Rik, had it not seemed so futile. Nothing was going to stop the rape of the city now that it had begun. He had seen such things before, during the Clockmaker’s rebellion back in Talorea.
"I don't think we have much choice in the matter," said Lord Azaar. "Events have taken the decision out of our hands."
Elakar looked at his fellow General as if shocked by his honesty. Rik guessed he was not a Terrarch who would ever admit to his own powerlessness. "Halim has resisted. Halim will pay the price," he said eventually. "In three days you will see what your folly has brought upon your city."
"In three days I will not be alive to see it," said Telarn. "I will atone for my folly with my life."
"Tell me why you chose to resist us?" Azaar asked. "It must have been obvious that you could not withstand our forces."
"We were promised aid," said the Lord Governor of Halim. "It never came."
"Who promised you this?"
"Khaldarus is not king," said Elakar. "He is a mere pretender to the throne that is rightfully his sister's."
Telarn looked as if he wanted to disagree. For a moment his features became almost animated but then one of the accompanying delegation, a tall, fine-featured Terrarch woman, reached out and touched his hand.
"It is as you say," he said, almost grudgingly.
"Not only is he a pretender to the throne, he is a liar and a traitor to those who trusted him. As you have found out to your cost."
"It is as you say, Lord Elakar. We have come to throw ourselves on your mercy and offer ourselves as hostages for our city. We place our fate in your hands, and request you show mercy as well as wisdom."
"You may approach," said Elakar. "We will accept your surrender, and your parole."
Elakar surveyed the approaching Kharadreans as if he had personally defeated every one of them in hand-to-hand combat and he expected applause and recognition for the deed. It was as if he, and not Azaar, was the famous General, and as if his plan, and not Azaar's had achieved the victory.
One by one the Kharadreans approached and were announced. Elakar gestured his acknowledgment but said nothing. Occasionally Azaar spoke, greeting some old acquaintance among the conquered. There seemed to be a fair number of them. Eventually, after some hours the procession passed and was led off to a tented compound nearby. Azaar turned to Elakar and his fellow general nodded.
"Halim has surrendered," Elakar said. "We are triumphant. Let our victory be celebrated."
The Taloreans began to cheer. Azaar rose from his throne and limped wearily back to his pavilion.
Sardec sat amid the ruins of the burned out building and looked at his men. Their uniforms were dirty, their faces smudged with soot but they looked happy and more than a little drunk. All of them carried sacks filled with plunder. The army had fallen on Halim like a swarm of locusts set on devouring a field of corn. Anything of the slightest value had been grabbed, any liquor or beer seized. Now men guzzled stolen food and glugged down stolen wine.
Sardec did not blame them. They had risked their lives for months for the pittance the army paid them. This was their chance to get something for their trouble. Nonetheless he found it depressing. They were using tapestries as blankets and cloaks, and the frames of paintings burned on bonfires. In the distance he could hear the screaming of women, and now and again, a man would rise from the fires and head of in the direction of the sound. Some looked ashamed, some looked expectant but most of them went. A few men sat by the fires and muttered prayers against temptation, but some of those whom Sardec would have thought the most devout were among those most eager to head off. It was as if all normal rules of behaviour had been suspended. Laws did not apply in this time and place. Men could do now what they would have been hanged for at other times, and a significant number of them were taking advantage of that fact.
Woe to the vanquished indeed, Sardec thought. He knew from previous experience that in a few days many of those men would be ashamed of what they were doing now. He supposed that they knew that as well as he, and yet it did not stop them. It constantly surprised him what war brought out in men. At times they could be selfless and heroic as saints, sacrificing their own lives as they tried to help fallen comrades. At other times they were little better than beasts.
Out in the night now a whole city was being savaged by packs of marauders. Tens of thousands of people were suffering and thousands of their fellows were taking pleasure in that suffering, and making themselves richer while it happened.
He thought of the elementals he had seen unleashed earlier today, demonic entities that could be trapped and compelled to do what a sorcerer wished. They were potent and yet they could not survive long away from the home planes. In this world they were like fish out of water or divers holding their breath deep below the surface of a river.
Tonight another sort of demon had been let out of its bottle. He wondered how long it would take for it to vanish, or whether it ever truly did. The most terrifying thought for him was that perhaps it was there all the time, lurking behind the respectful faces of the men who followed him, and the servile grimaces of the servants. If that were the case he thought this whole world was in trouble.
Perhaps those who said the Shadow made this world were right, he thought. He took another sip of victory wine. It tasted very sour.
Azaar's tent was surprisingly spartanly furnished, Rik thought. He sat beside Lady Asea and a small number of the higher officers of the General's staff. A few eyed him resentfully, a few enviously, no doubt because of the carefully spread rumours that he was Asea's lover. Some of them looked at him calculatingly. His stock was high, and it was said that news of his bravery had reached the ears of the Queen of Talorea. They were no doubt trying to work out how to take advantage of that fact. It was the Terrarch way. Their lives were politics and politics were their lives. Now the same was true for him.
Azaar gestured for his guests to be seated. Servants in the livery of his house produced wine and filled goblets. Azaar raised his glass. All present did the same.
"To victory," he said. His voice was flat and dry, but it carried through the tent as clearly as a shout. Rik would have given a lot to master that trick.
"To victory," the guests echoed.
The glasses were refilled. "To her Majesty, Queen Arielle of Talorea."
"To her majesty."
"To her majesty, Queen Kathea of Kharadrea."
"To her majesty."
The General seemed to be taking a mocking pleasure in making the toasts and getting his guests drunk. Rik took only sips from each glass. He wanted a clear head this evening.
The elaborately spiced food of the Terrarchs was set on the table. The drinking and chatter proceeded. "I thought Lord Elakar basked in his triumph very graciously," said a colonel from the far end of the table.
"He was entitled to speak first," said Lady Asea. "The Queen gave him precedence."
Rik's glance flickered from her to Azaar. Both of them were unreadable. They ought to be, having had thousands of years to practise hiding their thoughts. "He has the airs of a Viceroy," said someone else.
"And the garb of one too," said the Colonel. “Where did he dig up that sceptre?”
"We are not here to rule Kharadrea," said Azaar. His voice was flat and calm but there were compulsions in it that commanded belief, despite the subtle hints of mockery. More magic, Rik thought. "We are here to see that Queen Kathea gains what is rightfully hers."
"It would seem our job is almost done then," said the Colonel. "The capital is ours. The nobles are lining up to swear fealty to Kathea, and we have not seen hide nor hair of the damned Sardeans."
Azaar's tone was dry. "It's always been easier to get the Kharadreans to swear fealty than to make them keep their oaths. They are sworn to Kathea now because we appear to be winning. They will follow Khaldarus next year if our luck turns in the field."
"Surely that is not likely," said the Colonel. "We have shown the Sardeans for the cowards they are. The Dark Empire has not dared interfere with our conquest of Kharadrea."
"I repeat we are not here to conquer Kharadrea, Colonel. We are here to put its Queen on her throne. And if you believe the Sardeans are afraid of us I fear you are sadly misled."
"Why have they not committed their armies then, Lord Azaar?" asked Colonel Xeno, the commander of the Seventh.
"Possibly because they have not been asked to, by the Pretender," said Azaar. A round of groans told Rik how unlikely everyone present thought that to be. Only Asea did not join the general murmuring. Her attention seemed entirely focused on Lord Azaar.
"Perhaps because they wish his position to become precarious," she said. "They want him to know exactly how beholden he is to them. They want it to be obvious that he has no chance to defeat Queen Kathea on his own."
That silenced the diners. "And perhaps because they want us to be fully committed before they intervene," added Azaar. "Then they can sweep in as saviours of Kharadrea from the oppressive Talorean invader, and they can catch all our armies of the east in the field at once."
Azaar's bright malicious gaze turned to Rik. "What do you think, young man?" he asked.
Rik felt all eyes drawn to him. He was uncomfortable being the centre of attention but he considered the question for a moment. "There is another possibility."
Someone laughed. Rik kept his face composed. He knew that whatever he said someone among the Terrarchs would mock him for it.
"Go on," said Azaar. If he was offended by the fact that a young half-breed was suggesting he might have missed something, he gave no sign of it.
"The Sardeans may be divided among themselves over what to do. There are always at least two factions at any court. There will be those who oppose this war."
Colonel Xeno laughed. "The Sardeans are the most war-like people on Gaeia."
"They have kept the Peace of Oslande for over a century," said Asea. "We are the ones who have broken it."
"In order to see justice is done and Sardean ambition is contained," said the Colonel. His lips quirked. He knew exactly how cynical what he was saying sounded, but he was a Terrarch.
"Our young friend is right," said Azaar. "There will be those in Sardea who oppose conflict. War is always risky no matter how powerful your army or how just your cause.”
"You think it unlikely then that the Sardeans will intervene."
"I think they are watching us now, gauging our strength and our resolve, measuring themselves against us. I believe they will let us stretch our line of supply as far as they calculate we will go, and then next year they will intervene with all their strength. And let us not delude ourselves, my lords and ladies and youthful friends, their strength is very great indeed. I think this will be the last of our easy victories."
"You consider this campaign to have been easy, General?" asked the Colonel.
"You fought in the last great war between Talorea and the Dark Empire, Colonel. What do you think?"
"I think you are right, General." After that the conversation became subdued and the taste of victory did not seem quite so sweet.
After the dinner Rik escorted Lady Asea back to her pavilion. She considered it best to keep up the fiction that they were lovers now that it was established in the minds of the army. Rik agreed with her there. It was better than having people know the grim truth about his heritage and the way Asea had chosen to exploit it.
Once they were inside her tent, she spoke a word and the glowglobe sitting in its tripod sprang to life. She spoke another word and wards sprang into place around them, dulling the sounds from outside, making the noises seem as if they came from a very long way off. She slumped down in a folding chair, looking suddenly very weary.
"Are you all right?" he asked.
"I am just tired."
"It's been a long day," he said.
"I thought my time had come when we faced that dragon earlier." Rik looked at her in surprise. It was the first time he had ever heard her admit something like that. “I owe you my life. I will not forget that.”
"We are still here," he said.
"Only just," she replied.
"You do not sound very triumphant."
"Let idiots like Elakar make speeches about victory. I know, you know and Azaar knows that the real war has only just begun."
"You think the Dark Empire will intervene soon."
"We both know that it has intervened already. You fought with the Nerghul in Morven. You saw what their agent Zarahel got up to in the mountains. I just wonder what their next surprise will be. I fear it will not be long till we find out."
Rik was forced to agree. She smiled brightly. “Now, let us continue your education in the principles of sorcery.”
“No rest for the wicked,” said Rik.
“No rest indeed.”
Rik looked out the window as the coach approached Parliament Square. Its wheels clattered jarringly on the cobblestones. Above Karim, Asea’s deadly South-born body-guard, rode beside the driver, his bow in his hand even here. A month after its fall Halim was still dangerous enough to require that. Some of the crowd filling the square looked well-off but there were plenty of starving people who knew their situation was only going to get worse as winter approached. Their pinched faces and patched clothes contrasted with the graceful lines of the beautiful old buildings. Halim was an enormous city, constructed on a monumental scale. It had been built to be the new capital of the Terrarch Empire only a few years before that Empire had torn itself apart. Now it had a curiously sick and sinister look, like an age-ravaged beauty dressed in the gown bought in a more prosperous year.
The coach swept them into the square. On its western side, the Temple's great dragonspire rose towards the sun. To the north lay the vast colonnaded frontage of the parliament building. To the east was the Royal Palace. It was a fairly traditional arrangement found in all the old cities of the Terrarchs. All of the buildings were gigantic, and had a curiously decayed look. Their upkeep was patchy at best but they had been built to intimidate, and they performed that function still. The sheer size of them spoke of the permanence and power of Terrarch rule. Humans had never built anything so big or so beautiful. For all their size they had a loveliness of line that moved the heart. In niches in the walls, enormous statues of Terrarch saints and dragon-riders and heroes gazed down upon the living, dwarfing them, reminding them of who ruled this world, and why.
Beside Rik, Asea sat garbed in formal courtly attire. Her hair was piled high revealing her pointed ears. Subtle makeup accentuated her large eyes, high cheekbones and broad-lips. The price of the jewelled Elder Signs around her throat could have fed the whole crowded square for a week. Rik studied them with the interest of a former professional thief. In his earlier life he would never have believed it possible he could be sitting so close to a queen's ransom and yet have no designs to steal it. How things change, he thought.
"Nervous?" Asea asked. She sounded like a bright young woman going to her first ball, not the two thousand year old near-immortal she in fact was. Her constant shifts of mood and image were hard for him to grasp. He had expected a formidable being set in her ways, not this mercurial personality. He suspected that if you dug deep enough you would find that truesteel core, but she was adept at hiding it. He supposed she had enough time to practise that.
"No," he lied. He had been less nervous on nights when he had risked his life on a big theft or before a battle. Today, he was going to be ritually presented to Princess Kathea, now formally in residence in her Palace and awaiting the high holy day of her coronation, and he was uncomfortably aware that she, even more than Asea, was in a position to change his life. She could grant him rewards beyond the wildest imaginings of a street boy from Sorrow.
He ran his mind over the rituals Asea's Master of Etiquette had taught him. He knew exactly how close he should come to the royal presence and exactly how deeply he should bow. He knew he was not to raise his face until the Queen-to-be told him he could look upon her countenance. He was certain he knew what he was doing. He had a good memory for such things. He had been told he could keep wearing his sword. It was a mark of special favour for a half-breed like him. He supposed the future Queen must trust him. After all, if he had wanted her dead, he could have killed her at any time during their long trek back to Morven after their escape from the Serpent Tower.
"You look very handsome," said Asea. He ought to. She had spent a fortune on the clothes he wore. He could sell this gold-braided dark red tunic for enough money to feed a family outside for months. He stroked the trim on the folded cuff with the fingers of his right hand.
"You are going to have to stop doing that," she said.
"Thinking about how much the clothes cost. A Terrarch Aristal never does."
"Are you reading my thoughts, Milady? I thought you said the Elder Signs you provided me with would prevent such a thing." He smiled so that she would know he was joking.
"No, Rik. It's just I have come to know you quite well over the past few months." For a man as secretive as he was, it was terrifying to contemplate that someone could read him so well, but if anyone ought to be able to do so, it was Asea. She had centuries of experience of the moods and body language of mortals. How much of her apparently magical divinatory abilities were simply the result of those ages of experience, he wondered?
"Are we so transparent to you?" he asked.
"You are anything but transparent, Rik. There is as much guesswork as certainty in my observations." He wondered whether that was true or if she was just flattering him to put him off guard. He wondered whether she could read those thoughts in his face too. If she could she gave no sign.
"I was thinking about the cost of the clothes," he said, not quite sure why he was letting her confirm the accuracy of her observations.
"I am not a Terrarch Aristal."
"You will be soon. You will be adopted into my house. I have already written to Queen Arielle asking for the patent." Despite himself he was surprised. It must have shown on his face.
"I told you I would," she said. "I always keep my promises. For good or ill."
That was true, too. She paid all her debts, of honour as well as blood. Rik decided that now was as good a time as any to ask her what was on his mind.
“Why has Kathea not been crowned? If it were up to me, she would have been made Queen as soon as we took the city?”
Asea smiled. “There are two reasons.”
“And the first is?”
“That Terrarch coronations always occur on the Feast of Saint Balthazar. It is auspicious and we are a very conservative people.”
“I suspect that is not the main reason.”
“And your suspicions are correct. Invitations have been sent to every Aristal family in Kharadrea. There must be time for all of them to receive and acknowledge those invitations. Those who do not attend will be known as traitors to the crown. Their properties will be forfeit. A number of our Talorean noble families are looking forward to increasing their estates in Kharadrea. Such things must always be done according to correct legal procedure.”
“You expect that some families will not attend.”
“I am certain of it.”
The blare of golden trumpets announced their arrival. They passed through the great archway into the inner court of the Royal Palace. A moment later the destriers pulling the coach came to a stop and liveried footmen put the wooden steps into place that would allow them to get down from the interior with ease.
Rik got down first and then helped Asea to descend. The flowing, belled skirts of her billowing gown were not exactly practical for such purposes. They strode along the crimson hued carpet and under the arched doorway. A Palace servant greeted them fawningly and began to lead them through the maze of corridors.
Rik took his cue from Asea, keeping his face bland and blank and letting a slight smile quirk his lips. He tried to look as if he had grown up surrounded by such wealth and saw it every day when, in reality, the only time he had ever seen its like before was when he was burgling mansions in Sorrow.
Yet again he found himself valuing things as he walked along. The paintings, by Scorelle, were worth thousands each. The gold leaved frames could probably buy his clothes. These were mostly famous scenes from history — great battles and conflicts, the surrenders of rebel Generals to King Orodruine. Given the fractious and factional nature of Kharadrean politics, there was no shortage of such scenes in the nation's history, although the number of dragon-winged angels who beamed down on the King's victories rather punctured any pretensions to realism. If truth had been told, the impression given was entirely misleading. Orodruine had not been a warrior king, or a successful general. For a good deal of his long reign his realm had been a battleground on which the warring armies of Talorea and Sardea had clashed. For the rest of its history he had mostly been in thrall to coalitions of his over-mighty nobles. There was something about all the martial valour depicted here that made Rik think of the boasting of a drunken coward.
"Stop doing that," murmured Asea.
"Doing what?" he replied equally quietly.
"Assessing the value of the paintings if you were going to sell them to a fence." He suppressed a smile, knowing that this time her guesswork had only been partially correct.
"Best try to do so before we come before the Queen. I doubt she will appreciate your appraising of her property."
"Judging by the length of this corridor I have a few more minutes to bring my cupidity under control."
As he said it he noticed one picture, showing a human being raised up by the King, and ennobled with a golden sash. The man wore a General’s gold-braided hat and was missing an arm and an eye. Rik knew this could only be Armand Koth, the legendary General who had finally expelled both Taloreans and Sardeans from Kharadrea. He had practically rewritten the manuals of military tactics too. For a brief dazzling moment it struck Rik that Koth had most likely walked these very corridors in the days of his glory before his sad death.
He was still dwelling on the thought as they entered the huge antechamber to Kathea's chambers. The servant swept them past the mass of courtiers and hangers-on waiting there and presented them to a tall, long-nosed Terrarch who bowed deeply and then banged on the door. As they waited for it to open Rik was all too aware of the number of eyes upon them. Once more he found himself uncomfortable under so much public scrutiny.
The doors opened from within. Rik caught a glance of a slightly smaller chamber, lit by a sorcerous chandelier, walls lined by paintings. Beneath each painting stood a tall Terrarch cavalryman in the dark green and black uniform of the Kharadrean Household Guard. On a throne on the dais at the far end of the room sat Queen Kathea. Her gorgeous green robes and the diadem on her head made her look far more regal than the somewhat bedraggled figure Rik had rescued from the Serpent Tower.
Slightly behind her on and her right sat Lord Azaar. In consideration of his illness, he was allowed to rest on a small, carved stool. His head cocked sardonically to one side as he saw Asea. She and Rik strode in, presented themselves as formalities required and servants slid the doors shut behind them.
As he looked up at the Queen, Rik was once more aware that she seemed uncomfortable with his presence. That made him wary. Kathea was to be numbered among the most powerful people in this land now, and soon she would be ruler of it. If he made her feel uneasy, she would soon be able to remove the uneasiness along with his head. At the moment, there was not a lot he could do about that. He could only stand there, his mouth dry and his stomach churning, and resist the urge to fiddle with the tight collar of his dress tunic.
Asea talked smoothly and well. She had a courtier's poise and a diplomat's gift for courtly language that Rik could only envy. The small talk concerning her majesty's health and other matters did not seem to bother her. The Queen expressed pleasure at her upcoming coronation and then surprised Rik by requesting that he talk in private with her. That caused quite a stir with the long-nosed chamberlain and the bodyguards. Only Asea and Azaar gave no sign of surprise, and he wondered if they had planned this between them. Eventually, Kathea over-rode the protests of her followers and he was shown into a small antechamber. Light filtered in from tiny barred windows, and he realised that even here, high up in the Palace, they were concerned with security. A small couch was placed under the windows and before it, in the light, was a table with a book on it and some refreshments. Not quite sure what he was supposed to do, Rik waited for a cue. The future Queen surprised him by sighing loudly, dropping onto the couch and removing one shoe.
"They pinch," she said, when she saw his expression. It was not what he had expected.
"The shoes, Your Serenity?"
"The shoes, Rik." She poured a goblet of wine for herself. She seemed to take pleasure in it. He doubted she got much of a chance to do such things for herself. She took a sip with evident relish and then said, "Where are my manners? Would you like some?"
"I think I should pour that, Your Serenity," he said, more because he thought it was the thing he should say, rather than because he wanted to.
"Don't be silly." She poured him some wine, and offered it to him with her own hand. He took it and thanked her.
"In another few months, I won't be able to do anything like this again. It will be beneath my queenly dignity, so I may as well take my chances now." She spoke regretfully as if this was something she would miss. Rik felt quite taken off guard.
"In a few months you will be crowned, Your Serenity."
"It's not something I need reminded of, Rik. Everyone conspires to do that constantly except for your Lord Azaar. He seems like a nice old fellow."
That was not quite how Rik would have described the General, but she was most likely seeing a different aspect of his personality than Rik ever would.
"May I ask why you wanted to talk with me, Your Serenity?"
"I wanted to thank you for saving my life."
"It was my duty, Your Serenity, as well as my pleasure," he lied glibly. It had been a time full of fear and desperation.
"It was an act of true heroism and I am grateful. You were very brave. It’s just that I don't remember much about it myself. It all happened so quickly. Did I behave badly?"
So that was what all this was about, and her nervousness too. She wondered what he was telling others about her behaviour. He thought he understood now why he made her so nervous.
"Your Serenity's behaviour was never less than queenly," he said. "There were times when only your bold example let me maintain my own composure."
"I thank you for the compliment."
"It was nothing less than your due, Your Serenity."
"Lady Asea tells me you are a young man of discretion."
"You may rely on that, Your Serenity."
"Then you may rely on my gratitude." They exchanged complicit smiles. Rik felt like they had reached an agreement, like two thieves in Sorrow's bazaar deciding on what to tell the Watch if they were caught.
She rose from the couch and placed her glass upon the table. He did the same. It was obvious the interview was over. She gestured and he held the door open for her. They emerged into the throne room and the chamberlain showed Rik from the room, leaving Asea with the future Queen and the General.
Rik strode for a corner, and stood waiting, his face a bland mask of composure. As he did so a tall old Terrarch nobleman, a beautiful Terrarch woman and a group of their followers swept over to him.
"I understand that you are the young soldier we have to thank for saving the Queen's life," said the noble. His manners were very smooth, his small smile measured and polished like the gems on the pillows in a jeweller’s window. Rik wondered who he was and what his position was at court, and whether this was some test set by Kathea to see what he would say after their interview.
"I merely performed my duty," said Rik. "And the Queen did far more to help herself than I did to help her. Her grace under pressure was exemplary."
The beautiful lady's smile widened, she looked him up and down in a measuring fashion that was frankly sexual. He met her gaze blandly.
"Perhaps you would care to tell us about it," she said. Rik suddenly felt as if he did when sneaking into a well-guarded manor with dogs and sentries and all manner of sorcerous alarms. Putting a foot wrong here could be fatal.
"This is not the time or the place, I fear. I feel I should ask Her Serenity's permission before discussing such matters. The tale, after all, is hers to tell."
"Discreet as well as heroic. That is a useful quality in a young man," said the Lady. Her eyes made it clear that discretion could cover a lot of matters. The old nobleman smiled.
"My wife is correct," he said. "I hope we encounter each other again soon. I am Lord Sardontine."
"It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance." They bowed and curtseyed to each other. As they did so, Lady Asea emerged from the audience chamber.
"If you will excuse me," said Rik bowing again. "I must attend my patron."
"Of course," said Lord Sardontine. "One forgets how lovely Lady Asea is. It has been over a century since last I talked with her. Please give her my greetings."
With another bow, Rik disengaged himself. A moment later he found himself sweeping along beside Asea as a liveried servant showed them out.
"I see you encountered Lord Sardontine," she murmured.
"He sends you his greetings."
"I accept them with pleasure." A look and a sweep of a fan told him that this was not the place to discuss such people. It was not something he needed telling. He felt a surge of gratitude as they mounted the coach and left the Palace behind. As they swept out into Parliament Square he felt like he had just had a narrow escape from a nest of snakes.
“What happened back there?” Rik asked. “Did you discuss anything interesting with the Queen?”
“I did. I have been granted apartments in the Palace. You will join me.”
“We are leaving our tents? That will be nice.”
“It’s a sign of royal favour and I think she finds your presence reassuring. I am not surprised after you adventures together in the Serpent Tower.”
Rik kept quiet. That was one reason why Kathea might want him near but he could think of others. In the Palace he would be in easy reach if she decided to get rid of him.
Sardec sat at the table and scribbled another figure on the parchment before him. It was hard writing with his left hand. His script lacked the flowing grace with which he had once formed his letters with his right hand, but he was determined to master writing once more. It was a necessary skill for an officer in the Queen's Army.
The lists in front of him made for depressing reading. A lot of new soldiers had been transferred in, and all of them needed a place to stay and food and pay. His company had lost fewer men than he had feared in the siege of Halim, particularly compared to the disastrous excursion into Deep Achenar, but nonetheless fatalities had occurred. A lot of the deaths had been among the newer men, but some of those who had followed him into the buried city of the Spider God were gone as well. It was a soldier's lot to die for the Queen when duty called for it, but Sardec was surprised how much it pained him to see the names on the parchment. Those men had been in his care and every death felt like a failure.
They were only humans, he told himself. They would have died in a few years anyway. Somehow that made it worse. Perhaps they would get their reward in the lesser heaven but Sardec was finding it harder and harder to believe. There had been no concept of a lesser heaven until the Terrarchs had encountered humanity. Only then had the Prophets started talking about one. It seemed more of a political necessity than a religious truth. He was spending too much time around Lady Asea. Some of her ancient cynicism was rubbing off on him.
He scratched his forehead with the back of the hook, and let out a long sigh. At least the company had been assigned a decent place to dwell, an old fortified mansion on the edge of the poorer quarter near the market square. It had taken some string-pulling to get such a pleasant, defensible place in the overcrowded city but he had managed it. His stock was high with headquarters after the battle of the Abelen Ford, and his credit was good too with those he had needed to bribe.
He had seen that his soldiers were well-billeted and their dependents seemed to have found places nearby. The merchants who followed the army had already found them, and despite Sardec's warning the troops were already selling their loot for pennies on the crown, and using the proceeds to buy booze and food at inflated prices.
He could understand that — when you might be dead by the end of summer what was the purpose of saving? You might as well have a good time now. Sardec was not like that though — the treasures he had found were catalogued and crated, ready to be shipped back to the family estate. His father had been right; war could be profitable if you knew what you were about.
He looked over at Rena, and was surprised at how beautiful he found her. She sat on the bed they shared in the rooms he had taken, running the silver brush he had gifted her with through her thick glossy black hair.
Who had that brush once belonged to, Sardec wondered? Some Terrarch noblewoman? Some rich merchant's wife? It did not matter now. It was hers and her obvious delight in its possession had been recompense enough to Sardec for the small increment of gain it had cost him to give it to her.
She saw he was looking at her and gave him a bright smile. It made his heart leap. There were times when Sardec wished he was able to tell her how much her beauty affected him, but somehow he could never quite break through the reserve he felt he should maintain around a human. He told himself he was being ridiculous. The woman had felt his weight upon her in the heat of passion. To think of maintaining reserve after that was merely foolish, and yet… And yet, he never quite could bring himself to talk about it to her.
She came over and stroked his cheek. There was a tenderness in the gesture that touched him, even as he felt he should repel it. After all, no human was supposed to do such a thing without permission. He forced himself to let out a long breath, to relax.
"What are you thinking?" she asked.
Now was the moment, he thought. Tell her that she is lovely, and she gladdens your heart in a way nothing ever has before and most likely nothing ever will again. "Nothing," he said.
"Are you thinking of the dead," she said, looking at the list. He knew she could not read, but he had told her what the paperwork was for.
"I was," he said.
"It was not your fault. They were soldiers. It was a battle." He wished he had not shared his doubts with her, but he had been a little drunk, and a little depressed, and he could not talk about his fears and inadequacies with his fellow officers. They were Terrarchs and they were already too inclined to mock him for being a cripple, for having a human lover, for any number of things. He did not want to give them any more ammunition for their contempt.
"I know. I know, and yet…"
"You are a good man," she said, sounding almost as if it came as a surprise to her.
"I am not a man, Rena. I am a Terrarch." She recoiled a little, as if fearing she had offended him. He could not quite get used to that fear in her. He would never hurt her. Yet he knew her fear was well-founded. Some Terrarchs would have had her horsewhipped for making such a suggestion. Not that long ago, she could have been put to death for it. This world was a cruel place for humans, he thought. He looked at his missing hand. It could be a cruel place for Terrarchs too.
He reached out with his good hand and drew her to him. Her lips met his. She led him slowly to the bed.
Rik parried Karim's blow and riposted. The southerner blocked the attack easily. He looked calm and fresh and not the slightest discomposed. Rik's shirt was soaked with sweat, his breath came in laboured gasps, and his hand shook from fatigue. They had been practising for an hour and it was beginning to tell on Rik. Karim was garbed all in black, and a scarf obscured the lower portion of his face. He showed no sign of any fatigue. He was barely breathing heavily.
Karim's return blow sent the sword spinning from his hand. "Your mind was elsewhere, Master Rik," he said.
"You are right," Rik admitted. He had found it best to be honest about such things with Karim. The southerner was an expert judge of his state of mind, at least when it came to the crossing of blades. He glanced around the courtyard of the Palace. A number of Terrarch officers watched them, a few Terrarch ladies as well.
"You can’t afford to be distracted when swords are involved, Master Rik. If this had been a real fight you would have been a dead man."
"That would be true of any real fight I had with you, Karim."
"True, Master Rik. For the moment at least — but you are young, you are quick and you have a great deal of promise. Already you are better than many men with a blade. Someday I hope you will be a master."
"You are very kind to say so, Karim."
"Forgive me for contradicting you, but kindness is not part of my nature. Truthfulness is. I would not say such a thing if it was not true. Some men are natural killers — you are one of them. It is as if you were born to wield a sword. I suspect you would be good with almost any weapon you picked up, and better than good with those you practiced with."
Rik frowned. He thought of what Asea had told him of his Shadowblood heritage, that he was a born assassin from a line of born assassins. She supposed his ancestors to be a clan of beings created by a Prince of Shadow to be his personal killers. She wanted him to be hers. He supposed he already was. Of course, she was prepared to pay him well for this. She was already doing so, but her patronage was dangerous. Just being a Shadowblood was punishable by death, if you were discovered. It was yet another thing that gave her enormous leverage over him.
"I am glad you think so," he said.
"I know so," said Karim. There was even a hint of warmth in his normally chill voice. Rik decided to ask the Southerner the question that had been on his mind for a while.
"How did you come to Lady Asea's service — if you don't mind me asking?"
"I do not. The Lady told me you would ask me this, and she told me I should answer you if I wished."
"Do you wish?"
"It is a tale for another time," said Karim. "But someday I will tell you."
Rik noticed that a tall, heavily built man had entered the courtyard. He was dressed as an engineer, and he had a set of rolled up plans underneath his arms. He looked around politely and waited to be recognised. He was a human with the dark swarthy features of a Mazarean. His beard and moustache were imperfectly dyed. None of the Terrarchs present paid him any attention so he hailed a servant.
"Benjario has business with Lady Asea," the man said in a self-important voice. Rik felt his interest being piqued. The big man had been around to see Asea several times before, always clutching masses of rolled up parchment, inscribed with diagrams and odd notations. At first he had suspected sorcery, but now he wondered if it might not be something different. Benjario was a name he had heard before. He was the madman who believed that one day all men would be able to fly. What possible business could he have with Asea?
Rik decided that he would make a point of finding out in the not too distant future, but right now he had an appointment to meet with Weasel and the Barbarian. He wanted to see them both for old times’ sake and to find out what they were up to. If anybody could give him some idea of what was going on in this city, they could.
The Foragers were not billeted among palaces but in an older part of the city, the ancient part that predated the construction of the Imperial capital. It had been built when humans still ruled the world and by-passed by the slum clearances that had made way for the new mansions of the Terrarch aristocracy. The tenements surrounding Rik were high, the streets narrow. The whole area was squalid and crowded and full of uniformed men, and those who could always be counted on to appear in their wake: camp followers, whores, moneylenders, merchants of the sleazier sorts, card-sharps, pawnbrokers, beggars and minstrels.
The smell was the familiar one of Rik's childhood, a mixture of human and animal dung, unwashed bodies, food cooking on street braziers, cheap perfume, incense and wood-smoke. The raucous calls of vendors and bar-girls cut through the hubbub of barter and chatter. He smiled. He felt like he was coming home. No one paid him the slightest attention for he had changed out of his Terrarch finery and back into his old green tunic and a set of patched brown britches. He did not want to attract the attention of every pick-pocket and street-robber in the quarter. He carried only enough money for the evening's entertainment. He had left his sword behind, relying on the bayonet thrust in his belt and the knife in a hidden sheath in his sleeve for protection.
He paused occasionally to haggle with a street vendor for outrageously over-priced skewers of food that tasted like cat when he bit into it. It wasn't the food he was interested in. He talked mostly just to get a feel for the area and directions to the Foragers’ billet. This turned out to be a massive old mansion that had probably belonged to some merchant. Sardec, or whoever had picked it, had chosen it with an eye to defence. The place was walled and built round a courtyard. Its single arched entranceway could be barred shut and easily defended, always an important consideration when rioting was a strong possibility.
As he approached it, he saw a woman and his mouth went dry. It was Rena, the girl who he had gone with in Redtower what felt like a lifetime ago, and who had betrayed him to go off with Sardec. She was better dressed these days, but her lush beauty still affected him as strongly as ever. He fought down the urge to duck into a side alley and kept moving. He was damned if he was going to hide from her.
She carried a woven shopping basket and the same two girls who had accompanied her to the camp at Morven were with her now. No woman would walk these streets alone at this time of day. He noticed that Toadface and Handsome Jan were with them, chatting with the girls. Either they had been assigned to watch them, or were interested in the lasses, or both. Toadface looked over at Rik. Surprise showed on his ugly pock-marked face and he strolled over with the girls in tow.
"I didn't expect to see you here," he said. "Or dressed like that. Decided that you've had enough of hob-nobbing with high born and run off to be a soldier?"
"Something like that. I've come to see Weasel and the Barbarian."
Handsome Jan admired his own profile in a fragment of mirror, pointing out the fineness of his cheek to one of the girls. She seemed to agree with him.
"Hello, Rik," said Rena. Her voice was low and husky. She watched him cautiously. Their last meeting had been none too friendly. He looked at her and cursed himself mentally. Why did his mouth feel dry? Why was his heart hammering loudly against his ribs? She should not have this power over him, but she did.
"Hello," he said.
"You're looking well." Banality seemed to be the only basis of conversation here.
"So are you."
The two other girls looked at him with something like wonder. They had not shown anything like it the last time he had encountered them. "We heard that you rescued the Queen and destroyed the Serpent Tower," one of them said. Her voice sounded quite squeaky. Her eyes were wide. She seemed to be expecting him to perform another of these prodigies at any moment.
"We heard you are going to be knighted by the Queen or made a Duke or something."
Handsome Jan glared at him. He never liked not being the centre of attention. Rena did not say anything.
"That would be up to Her Serenity," he said, and cursed himself for sounding like a pompous ass. He felt suddenly unbalanced surrounded by these people from his old life, having just come from the new.
"We are honoured that you still choose to slum with us," said Handsome Jan. Yes, definitely jealous.
"Don't be a wanker," said Rik.
"I'm not the one who is a wanker," said Handsome Jan. Rik wondered if he wanted to start a fight. He had not been prepared for this sort of reception. "I'm not the one who is the fancy boy of a Terrarch noblewoman either."
"You're just jealous because I've achieved your highest ambition in life." Rik could see that the shaft had hit home from Jan's expression. Was that really it?
He noticed that Rena was glaring at them both now. What was she jealous about? She was hardly in a position to judge Rik. She was the one who had taken up with a Terrarch noble first. Then he noticed that most of her glare was aimed at Jan. His remarks had offended her as well. Not surprisingly, when he considered her circumstances. He guessed she must be living with Sardec.
"I heard you got an invitation to the coronation," said Toadface. He licked his lips, long tongue flickering out almost to his nose.
"I have," he said, because he knew it would annoy Handsome Jan, and he was pissed off with him. "I'll be seated right beside the Lady Asea."
Rena gave him an appraising look, a cold one. Perhaps he had been boasting to annoy her too. He was not the penniless soldier boy he had been when they first met. He was someone in the world. That was the theory at least. At moments like this, he felt just as much an impostor as he did when confronting the Terrarch nobility. He wondered if he was ever going to be at ease in this world and decided it was unlikely.
"I'm off to see Weasel and the big man," he said. Just to be flashy he gave them the most courtly bow Asea's Master of Protocol had taught him, directing it mainly at Rena. A moment later he was striding down the street to the Forager's new barracks. He badly needed a drink.
"My kind of place," said the Barbarian, surveying the Nag's Head with a proprietorial air. He rubbed his huge hands together and then scratched the bald crown of his head. It certainly was his kind of place, Rik thought. He doubted he had ever seen uglier whores or tasted rougher vodka, but at least the beer was strong and the music not too loud. Over in the corner a sad faced woman played Wanderlander tunes on a violin while a waif who might have been her daughter sang soft words. It was not like back home in Talorea. She would have been booted out of a tavern like this in Sorrow. The Kharadreans seemed to have a melancholy streak to their temperament. Rik supposed that they had a lot to be melancholy about.
Weasel nodded. "Good game going on in the back. They're keeping a seat warm for me."
"I hope that big girl over there will keep her seat warm for me, if you know what I mean," said the Barbarian, elbowing Rik in the ribs, just in case he had not spotted the innuendo.
"How is life at the Palace?" Weasel asked.
"Getting enough?" The Barbarian leered. Rik ignored him.
"It's fine but a bit dull."
"That why you decided to give the Nag's Head your custom?" Weasel asked. Rik was getting a bit sick of his old comrades being suspicious of him.
"No, I thought I would find out what was going on with you."
"We're honoured," said the Barbarian.
"Don't you start! I got enough of the sarcasm from Handsome Jan."
"What do you expect, Halfbreed," said Weasel. He looked serious for a moment. He was capable of seriousness when he wanted to be, and was far smarter than the Barbarian. There were times when Rik suspected that Weasel was smarter than he was. "You're a Terrarch now."
"You think so?"
"As far as most of the lads are concerned, yes. They hear all these stories — breaking into the Serpent Tower, rescuing Princesses, shagging witches, and it makes them nervous."
"How about you?"
"The only thing that makes me nervous is when the Barbarian here starts thinking."
"I'm glad to hear it. We've cut a few throats together."
All three of them looked warily about. They had done much more than that in their time. They had committed acts that would get them burned at the stake if the Inquisition ever learned about them. The Barbarian laughed. "Time for a meat pie," he said. "They're really good here. Hot and juicy, just the way I like them."
Weasel and Rik looked at each other and silently mouthed the words they both knew he was going to say. "Just the way I like my women."
"Better watch out — I hear that some strange ingredients been finding their way into those pies."
"Just stories," said the Barbarian. He downed a full glass of vodka in one and bellowed for another. "Doubt anybody is collecting corpses for pies. The ghouls are beating them to it."
Rik shot him a look. As a child, Rik had thought ghouls the most terrifying creatures imaginable. Tales of the monsters had always circled the orphanage. A vivid image sprang immediately from those days, of a creature horribly lean with grey mould-blotched flesh, sharp-toothed, eyes burning with an unspeakable hunger. And the worst thing was that you could become one. It was a disease that could be transmitted by their bite. "What’s that?"
"You'd better get out of the Palace a bit more, Halfbreed," said Weasel. "Parts of the city are over-run with the corpse-eating bastards. The Quartermaster says we're going to be going on a ghoul hunt soon."
“There are so many of them?”
“I don’t imagine they are running through the Palace gardens, but packs of them are haunting the graveyards.”
"Why do you think that is?" said Rik. "Way I always heard it, you get to be a ghoul by eating the flesh of dead men. It’s not like we besieged Halim long enough for mass starvation to break out."
"Maybe you should ask your girlfriend. She would know."
"Maybe I will."
"Let me know if you find out anything interesting. It might be worth something to the right people." Weasel paused for a moment considering. "That's if you're still interested in our sort of money."
Rik was. Not because he needed the money, he realised, but because he needed the connection to his old friends and the life they represented. You never knew when you might need to disappear back into the mass of humanity.
“What’s new with the Quartermaster?”
“He’s keeping his hand in. See that fat guy with the handlebar moustaches over there?”
“The one with all the bodyguards? Black hair — looks dyed.”
“The very same. His name is Uri. He’s big in the local gangs. We’ve been doing some business on the black market with him.”
“For the Quartermaster?”
“Aye. He tells us some interesting stuff sometimes, when he wants to. The sort of stuff it might be useful to your Lady A and her cronies, if you catch my meaning.”
“Want to introduce us?”
“If you like, only I hope you’ve still got a head for vodka, because those lads like to drink.”
“Somehow I will survive.”
“Let’s go over and say hello then. One word of warning.” Weasel looked serious.
“Be careful what you say about corpses. Uri and his boys deal in them?”
“Bodysnatchers?” It was a business that Rik disliked; selling fresh corpses for dissection to medical students, or as subjects for the strange experiments of necromancers. Such people were often not too picky about how they got their raw materials.
“The same. Aside from that they are good blokes,” said Weasel. “And they like a game of cards.”
“Let’s have a word with them then and maybe play a few hands.”
“I won’t be joining you,” said the Barbarian. He gestured at a couple of plump bar-girls who were waving at him. “It looks like my luck is in.”
“He won’t be saying that in the morning,” said Weasel shouldering his way through the crowd.
"You look like you've contracted the plague," said Asea, looking up from the complex diagram she studied. Before she folded up the massive parchment, Rik caught sight of what looked like an architectural schematic — he had seen many of those during his time as a burglar in Sorrow- although the building it depicted was unlike anything he had ever seen before.
"My head feels like a bridgeback is stamping on it. I went drinking with Weasel and the Barbarian last night."
"Did you find out anything interesting?"
"The usual rumours and some unusual ones…"
"It seems there has been a plague of ghouls in parts of the city — thick as rats in a garbage heap. The Foragers are supposed to be going on a ghoul hunt today." Rik did not envy them that.
Asea pursed her lips and steepled her fingers under her chin. "Ghouls are most common when there is a build-up of necromantic energies — there seems to be something about the presence of death magic in an area that encourages the disease."
Without being asked Rik took one of the beautifully upholstered claw footed chairs opposite her desk. "Would you care to explain that to me — I am just an ignorant slum boy from Sorrow."
"All magic releases energy, Rik. Philosophers think it leaks into our worlds from the Great Deeps. Sometimes other things release specific types of magical energy. The magical engines of the Serpent Tower, for instance. Certain violent forms of death seem to punch holes through the fabric of reality into the darker realms and let baneful energies through. It may be why ghosts appear on battlefields and the sites of murders. They are particularly common where dark magic has been used at the same time as battles or slayings."
“Why should there be such energies here?”
“After the Schism the Great Plague swept through Halim. Some considered it the curse of God for the murder of Queen Amarielle. There were so many bodies that they could not all be given individual burials or burnings. Huge plague pits were dug in the Grand Cemetery and bodies were just thrown in. There were thousands of them. Quicklime was used and alchemical fire. The pits were covered over. No one disturbs them for fear of releasing the plague again.”
“Is it likely?”
“Who can say? It’s certain that the Grand Cemetery contains a residue of death energies. That’s why it has its own tomb guards. Or at least it did.”
“They were drafted into the city guard to fight against us. They are now badly under strength. That’s why your friends are doing the work now.”
Rik felt like he had found out enough on this subject.
"What are those plans you were looking at?" he asked. "Are you thinking of building some sort of domed temple."
"They are Signor Benjario's plans for a flying machine."
"A flying machine?" Thoughts of the Serpent Tower and the flying coffin in which he had escaped from it filled his mind. They were not his fondest memories. "You are not thinking of building one are you?"
"No, Rik. I am having him build one for me."
"You are not serious."
"I am, Rik. Deadly serious. We shall be paying the good engineer a visit later this afternoon. However none of this is why you are here today. We're going to continue your lessons in sorcery. After all, you did ask for them."
Rik bit back a groan. All his life he had wanted to learn the forbidden arts. He had never suspected that they could be so dull. His training seemed to consist of nothing but meditation, of clearing his mind and concentrating on his heartbeat and his breathing, of trying to visualize Elder Signs in his mind. There had been no demonic lore, no learning about love potions, none of the strange drug-induced rituals that filled the cheap chap-books he loved to read. The biggest threat he faced did not appear to be to his soul but to his sanity; the dullness of it all was near mind-destroying.
"Before you learned to walk, you first learned to crawl," said Asea. "There are no shortcuts to mystical power despite what certain of the secret brotherhoods would have you believe."
"I don't doubt you," he said sourly. "How long will it take before I am ready to learn spells?" He asked the question almost every day, and almost every day he got the same answer.
“You have already learned spells, Rik. You are just not ready to cast them.” The few spells Asea had taught him simply did not work — when he invoked them nothing happened. It was as if he had not the slightest shred of the talent she assured him he possessed.
“Let me rephrase that- when will I learn spells that work?”
"It could be years. A Terrarch can take decades to achieve contact with the flows of tau. You are already much further along than most apprentices of your age — which is only to be expected. Humans come into their power much younger."
"Is that why sorcery drives them mad?"
"Partially. It is also because they do not take the time to learn the rituals of protection and filtration, and the energies they absorb warp their brains."
A sudden thought struck Rik. "Is that why you have me concentrate on Elder Signs all the time?"
She clapped her hands ironically. "Bravo, Rik. I knew you would understand it eventually. Mastering the Elder Signs is the first step along the road of wizardry. You must be able to invoke them and visualise them under almost any circumstance, no matter what pressure your surroundings may place on you. They will let you control and purify the energies of magic that surround us. Now clear your mind, and concentrate on your breathing and try to visualise a five pointed star within a circle."
He closed his eyes and did so.
"The circle must be perfect and the star must glow softly."
He continued to concentrate and slowly it took form and as it did so he felt something strange happen. He could not have described it but it was a tickling on the edge of his consciousness as if he were touching something with his mind, or something was touching him. He wanted to mention it to Asea, but his concentration lapsed and it was gone.
He began to the process once more.
Sardec looked at Sergeant Hef and then at the entrance to the graveyard. It was massive, for this was an ancient burial ground, on the outskirts of the city. A statue of a dragon-winged angel bearing a scythe guarded the entrance. Her male counterpart stood on the other side.
"Any questions, gentlemen?" Sardec asked. The Foragers laughed and their humour seemed genuine. It was not often a Terrarch called any human gentlemen.
"Just one thing, sir," said Weasel. Sardec wondered if the gangling sharpshooter was going to make another joke but his question seemed quite serious.
"Why are we checking out this graveyard?"
“Because we killed all the tomb wardens when we took the city.”
“Why do they need tomb wardens?” someone at the back asked.
"Because the Kharadreans bury their dead according to the old rite, rather than burn them. There are bodies beneath all those gravestones and in all those mausoleums."
A look of horror passed over some of the men's faces. It seemed almost obscene not to give the departed a clean burning, but customs differed. Perhaps the Generals of the Scarlet Armies should impose a new ordinance and force people to do so. After all, burying bodies provided raw materials for necromancers and food for ghouls. Then again, there was nothing surer to provoke people than interfering with their religious rites.
"What if an unclean spirit gets into the corpses, sir?"
"They bury them face down, so that if they try and claw their way out, they burrow down."
"And we're supposed to check out this whole place, sir?"
"I doubt we will have to, Weasel, but we will should it be necessary. Everybody have their truesilver bullets ready?" He hoped they did. He had provided those bullets at his own expense and he would not have liked to order any man flogged for having sold his on the black market. He suspected that more than a few of them had.
Every man present nodded. "Remember if you do see any ghouls don't let them bite you. If you are bitten pour whiskey on the wound, and flame it if need be. I know it’s a waste of good whiskey but better that than becoming a soulless monster. If we don't encounter any trouble you can always drink the stuff later."
Sardec wondered if the army's sorcerers had got this right. He did not understand how bathing a wound in whiskey and then cauterising it could prevent the onset of the disease but doubtless there was some deep alchemical principle involved. It was all beyond his understanding.
"If you see a ghoul, shoot first. If worst comes to worst use your bayonets but try not to let them get too close. I want every man paired with a torchbearer. Ghouls fear fire."
"I do, too," said Weasel, "particularly if it’s been set to good whiskey."
The Foragers moved into the graveyard. Sardec felt sure that inhuman eyes watched them from the shadows.
The manufactory was a large shed on the outskirts of town. It stunk of alchemicals. Inside a long hall, a dozen seamstresses sewed a huge structure of fabric together, working on the panelling. In another place, artisans treated a mass of cloth with some sort of chemical mixture. Everybody present had handkerchiefs wrapped round their faces and gloves on their hands.
In part of the chamber, rope-makers twisted long strands of hemp together. The largest basket Rik had ever seen stood in one corner. In the most distant corner of the room, blacksmiths worked on metal cylinders. In the middle of the works, Master Benjario presided over the bustle of activity, pausing only occasionally to take snuff or a swig of wine from a goblet that a small dark-skinned scolding woman presented to him. As soon as Rik and Asea entered he hustled over to them.
"Lady Asea, Master Rik, Benjario is pleased that you visit his humble premises."
"I am pleased to be here, Master Benjario. I am glad to see my investment is being put to such good use. I trust that things are progressing well."
"Better than well, my Lady. Better than well. Superbly. As they must when Benjario supervises."
Whatever else he might lack, Rik thought, the engineer was not short of self-esteem.
"All is in readiness for our flight?" Asea asked. Benjario looked a little shifty.
"My Lady doubts the word of Benjario?"
"Not in the least, Master Benjario. I can think of few mortals I would trust more. I am simply excited by the prospect of a trip through the heavens."
Benjario smiled indulgently and kissed his fingers. "Your Ladyship's presence will grace the skies as much as the shining of the sun."
The dark-skinned woman behind Benjario glared at him. She must be his wife, Rik guessed. She saw Rik looking at her and shot a daggered look at him too. His fine clothes obviously did not daunt her. Rik nodded to her as pleasantly as he could.
"It is your mechanism that will make it possible, Master. I am looking forward to tomorrow very much."
"Tomorrow?" said Rik.
"Tomorrow," said Asea.
"Tomorrow…" murmured Benjario, with something less than certainty.
"You assured me that the air-chariot would be ready by tomorrow," said Asea. "Surely that is the case. It is not possible that Benjario could have miscalculated. His genius is too enormous for that."
Benjario swelled like a toad at the praise. His smile grew broader but he said, "There may be a few minor delays, Milady. My work force is lazy and even Benjario cannot be everywhere at once. I wish to check every detail of the preparations. It would not do to have something go wrong as we ascend triumphantly into the skies. It would be a tragedy if the genius of Benjario and the beauty of the Lady Asea were to be lost to the world."
"I could not agree more," said Lady Asea. "Still you assured me that you had more than enough time to complete your preparations. It is important that we take flight on the feast day of Saint Aviara. She is the patron of birds and it is a most auspicious day for our journey. Surely you want as many witnesses to your triumph as possible?"
"Indeed I do, Milady, but surely one feast day is as good as another. What matters a delay of a week when one is about to step into the pages of history."
"Of course, Master Benjario, you are right," said Asea with what Rik thought of as astonishing mildness for her. She paused for a moment, looked at him and said. "Lady Sybea was telling me last night that her proteges, the Gazarone brothers, are preparing to fly in two days time."
"The Gazarones! Charlatans! Benjario has forgotten more about the science of stratospherics than they ever knew."
"I thought that must be the case," said Asea. "I told Lady Sybea, it was impossible that they would beat Benjario into the annals of aeronautics. I have no doubt that your place in history is secure Master Benjario. After all, if you assure me that they will not get their vehicle aloft in two days, then the thing is not possible. Two Kharadrean charlatans could not know more about these matters than you."
"Two days, you say, Milady?"
"So Lady Sybea assures me, but no matter, I will tell her that the great Benjario has assured me otherwise. I am sure she will be the first to admit her mistake."
"But Milady if there is even the slightest possibility that they may somehow complete their chariot within two days then we must fly tomorrow."
"Certainly not, Master Benjario. You have assured me that such a thing is not possible, and I would not presume to doubt you in such a case."
"Even the mightiest intellects may miscalculate occasionally, Milady. Even Benjario, if only very rarely indeed, but a truly great intellect must never discount the possibility that it might be mistaken."
"But what about the safety factors?"
"Benjario sneers in the face of danger."
"But what of the risk to Lady Asea?" asked Rik.
"If there is any danger, Benjario will gladly face it alone."
"I am sure that if Master Benjario thinks the vehicle is safe enough for him, then it will be safe enough for us, Rik," said Asea with the blandest of smiles.
"Us?" said Rik.
"You will be accompanying me, I hope."
Rik stared at her. Benjario bowed. "Milady, if I may be excused, I must see to it that these lazy swine do not slack on the job and that our chariot is ready to carry us into the history books."
"Of course, Master Benjario," said Asea with a nod of her head. As they departed Rik heard Benjario roaring like a bull at his staff. They all rushed to obey, except for his wife who stood nearby, making small circling motions with her forefinger against the side of her head.
Sardec glanced around. The graveyard was getting dark and they still had not found anything. The men were starting to show signs of unease. What had started out feeling almost like a game had become progressively grimmer as the day wore on. Clouds gathered overhead, cutting off the light and making things still gloomier. Sere leaves dropped from the cemetery trees crunched under his feet.
They now searched the richest part of the graveyard. The mausoleums looked more like small houses, and that was just the part of them that was on the surface. There were larger crypts below ground. In some ways it was like being in a small town, albeit a very quiet one, full of old, ornate buildings. They had seen no one since they entered, not even the wardens who were supposed to maintain the place, and keep out grave-robbers. The company, divided into sections of ten, swept along the lanes between the tombs, calling to each other in soft voices, more for reassurance than anything else.
As the air cooled, mist rose from the earth, turning the troopers first into black and white figures and then shadowy outlines. Torches spluttered. Men talked in low voices. Sardec considered calling it a day, before someone got lost or wandered off into the mist. If there were ghouls here, he thought, now would be their best time to attack. The advantage of the men's muskets would be negated by their limited vision.
The clammy air fingered his neck. An odd scent reached his nostrils. Somewhere nearby a hand-bell tolled. It startled him. He heard feet coming closer, almost like men marching. "Tell the lads to hold steady," he told Sergeant Hef. "It’s just a funeral procession."
He let out a long breath. It would not do to have the Foragers open fire. Things were already tense enough with the locals without massacring a bunch of mourners. Such things happened, he knew. His father had told him of it. He was determined that it would not happen on his watch.
The bell came closer, and he could hear chanting. From out of the mist emerged a group of priests, and what might have been a whole family of mourners bearing a coffin among them. They looked like a clan of rich human merchants, well-dressed in heavy black cloth trimmed with funereal gold. Obviously not even rumours of ghoul infestation had discouraged them from holding the ceremony. Sardec supposed that they wanted to show respect for the dead, and not use an unmarked pauper’s grave.
"Picked a nice time for it," he heard Weasel mutter as the mourners passed by. "Let's hope the ghouls don't get them."
"Let's hope they don't hear your idiotic blatherings," said Sergeant Hef in a low angry voice. The Sergeant was a devout man, and not without sympathy for the bereaved. He was annoyed that Weasel might be intruding in these people's grief.
"I was just saying, Sergeant," said Weasel. "Maybe we should go and make sure they are all right. Maybe we should stake out the grave… in case any corpse eaters decide that want a nice fresh snack."
It was not a bad idea, except for the fact that ghouls preferred rotten, worm-infested meat. And of course it would not be the height of sensitivity to set up an ambush around a funeral service.
The family disappeared into one of the nearby mausoleums. Sardec heard keys being used twice, once to unlock the outer door, and once the inner gate. He knew that such vaults were double-locked from the outside. Presumably to keep their inhabitants in, if they felt an urge to go for a stroll.
He could see a couple of torchbearers standing nervously by the doorway. This was getting them nowhere, he thought.
"Sergeant Hef, pass the word. We are pulling out. The graveyard watch is over for the day."
"Glad to hear it, sir. I would not want to be left in here when they lock the outer gates for the night."
At that moment, he heard a voice come from the gloom. "I think we've found something, sir."
"Oh great," he heard the Barbarian mutter. "Just in the nick of time."
Weasel knelt and inspected the track in the mud.
"What do you make of it," Sardec asked.
Weasel traced the outline of the print in the air with his finger. "Human sized. Not wearing boots obviously. Hasn't cut his toenails for a longer time than the Barbarian. Either that or he's developed claws."
"How long ago?"
"Not long. Print's quite fresh."
"I thought ghouls only came out at night," someone muttered.
"It's misty. Maybe ghoulie got confused. Or maybe he got a sniff of the funeral and couldn't contain his hunger. Maybe the smell of incense does for them what the smell of frying onions does for me."
"There more of them about?" Sardec asked.
"Don't know, sir. I can check the area for prints but the lads mostly likely trampled on a lot of them if they were there."
"At least we know there's one of them in here, sir," said Sergeant Hef. "Maybe more."
"One's enough for me," said Toadface.
"Think you can track him?" Sardec asked Weasel. The sharpshooter scratched his beak of a nose then sucked his teeth.
"It's misty, sir, and the light's not so good." Like the rest of them, Weasel wanted to go home. Sardec could tell.
"There's a bounty for each ghoul head," he reminded the Foragers. "Can buy a lot of vodka for a silver piece."
Weasel grinned. "A drink for each man in the company, sir. Maybe." There were a lot of soldiers here and one head would not do much for their thirst. Plus the soldiers still had their plunder stashes. They were not short of money. Sardec could not blame them for their lack of enthusiasm under the circumstances. He was really no keener than they about remaining in the graveyard.
A scream rang out. Followed by another. Then silence.
"It came from the direction of the mausoleums," said Weasel. "Somebody did fancy a snack."
"Ready weapons, lads," said Sardec. "Looks like we're going to kill some ghouls after all."
"Are you sure what you are planning is wise?" Rik asked Asea as they entered her chambers in the Palace. She smiled and spoke the words of the warding spells. The street noise from outside fell away.
"I do believe you are frightened, Rik," she said with a mocking smile.
"My last experience with flying engines was not the sort that makes me keen to get into the air again."
"Master Benjario's machine will work Rik. I have checked his calculations myself."
"That reassures me somewhat, Milady, but still I fear for your safety. Accidents happen. And sometimes they happen deliberately."
"I don't think Master Benjario is going to kill himself just to rid the world of me, Rik. I have known people who would but he is not one of them."
"His wife might," said Rik, only half-joking. "But I was thinking more of sabotage."
"Our preparations will be most thorough. Everything will be checked before we take off."
"You really are determined to do this, aren't you, Milady?"
"For the thrill of it, Rik." He studied her, trying to work out whether she was being flippant. He could not tell. He wondered if he had a life as long as hers whether he would risk it.
"Is your life really so dull?"
"This will be a new experience," she said. "There are not many of those in my life."
"It might be the last new experience you will ever have."
"There are risks attached to everything, Rik. Even walking across the street."
Ahead of Sardec a pack of ghouls swarmed over one of the torchbearers, tearing at his throat, ripping at his flesh with bloody fangs. Horribly the man still moved, but his tongue had been bitten out, and only soft gobbling sounds emerged from his blood-streaming mouth. More ghouls scampered about the mausoleum. They moved with a hideous loping motion, sometimes upright, sometimes on all fours, sometimes hunched in a position in between. Their movements had a reeling, uncoordinated quality as if something was wrong with their nervous system. Doubtless the degeneration induced by their disease had something to do with it.
The ghouls' flesh was grey and blotched. In some places it appeared covered in weeping sores, in others, sodden mould. Some of the things looked scaly. Many of them had lost fingers and noses and eyes. A few of them had wisps of hair, but most were bald. Their eyeballs were yellow and filled with madness. They were mostly silent, but occasionally an odd meep or glibber would emerge from their fanged mouths.
Shots rang out. One of the ghouls toppled and then began to rise again despite the hole punched in his chest. "Aim for the heads!" Sardec shouted. "That will stop them."
He wished he felt as sure as he sounded. He had no idea whether his plan would work, and in the bad light and mist it was easier to order than to achieve. The ghoul’s disease seemed to make them immune to pain though, and perhaps to most forms of injury. Hopefully destroying the brain would stop them.
Sardec raised his pistol and squeezed the trigger. The ghoul lurched to one side and the shot took it in the shoulder. The force of impact sent it reeling backwards, but it righted itself and came on at Sardec. He tossed the pistol into the air and caught it by the barrel, preparing to use the weighted grip as a club. As the ghoul came closer he caught its smell, like damp mouldy clothing mixed with rotten meat, of acrid long unwashed bodies. Meeting its gaze was horrible. Malevolence and mad sentience burned in those yellowish, bloodshot eyes. It smiled, revealing greyish gums, and sharpened, blood-covered teeth.
Sardec did not wait for it to come to him. He sprang forward bringing the pistol butt down on the side of its head. There was a sharp crack. As the ghoul slumped, Sardec got his hook into its throat, and tugged, turning it around to face away from him. He did not want to take any chances of being bitten. The hook cut into the windpipe and with a twist of his wrist Sardec tore the ghoul's throat open. Air wheezed from the gap. He kicked the creature so that it fell forward, sprawling onto its face, then leapt into the air, bringing both booted feet down on the back of the thing's neck with the full force of his body weight. Vertebrae cracked. Sardec staggered to one side and kicked the thing again and again, until its head was a bruised pulp, dry skin peeling away to reveal white bone beneath. An eye rolled free on the end of an optic nerve, and squelched like a burst tomato when he stamped on it.
Eerie mocking laughter rang out from above. Sardec looked up and saw through the swirling mist that a strange and horrifying figure had appeared on the mausoleum roof. He froze momentarily, his mouth dry, his heart hammering against his ribs when he realised what it was.
“You won’t take any more of my people,” shrieked a voice. “Not one. Not one. Not one.”
A female figure wrapped in tattered grave clothes leant against the ornamental carving on the roof. The gown was open and revealed two flopping breasts. The skin was albino pale. The hair was long and wild, leaves and twigs were caught in it. The woman's nails were long as claws. Her eyes were staring and mad. What was worst, at least for Sardec, was that she was not a human. She was a Terrarch, and judging from her clothing she had been an aristocratic one.
It made the whole thing personal and terrifying for him. Up till now he had managed to put aside his fear. Ghouls were just another sub-species, far below him in the natural order, just like he had considered humans to be. Now it came to him that his own people were not above the ravages of this disease. It was possible that if he were bitten, that one day soon he could be like the thing on the roof. The thought almost paralyzed him. Almost.
He turned and saw that Weasel had almost finished reloading his long rifle. "Kill that obscenity," Sardec bellowed, pointing up at her with his hooked arm.
Weasel nodded. "Sir!" He rose to his feet and raised his rifle for the shot. At that moment, something emerged from the mist behind him and leapt for his throat. Keen instinct warned the sharpshooter and he twisted to face his attacker. With the speed of his namesake, Weasel smacked the thing on the head with the butt of his rifle and then struck it again, smashing its skull. Sardec turned to look up at the ghoul chieftainess on the roof. She had vanished but from somewhere in the midst emerged a mad piercing shriek.
"Away my children. Away!" Sardec knew with utter certainty that the voice belonged to her. It seemed that even in her new state she ruled the humans as she had done in life. At once they began to glibber obscenely among themselves, breaking off from their struggles and retreating into the mist. “Do not let the outsiders take you!”
A gap appeared in the mist. The female ghoul was briefly visible. Almost casually Weasel raised his riddle to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. Smoke and sparks billowed forth. The former Terrarch lady’s head exploded. “Got her,” muttered Weasel.
From within the mausoleum, came more gobbling calls, and ghouls swarmed out of the place, some of them clutching severed limbs and heads. A few were mown down by the Foragers, but the rest of them vanished into the darkness and the fog, leaving the soldiers to check their dead and wounded.
"Sergeant Hef," said Sardec. "Take two sections and check out the mausoleum for survivors."
"Aye, sir," said the Sergeant, turning to shout at the soldiers who were unwilling to venture into the darkened tomb. Sardec did not blame them. He suspected that they would find only the dead down there, and maybe a few of their stranded foes, still hiding.
He walked around the men, asking if any had been bitten or even scratched. Those who had he forced to wash their wounds with whiskey and cauterise them. Astonishingly despite the bitterness of the combat, his men had taken no fatalities. At least not yet, he reminded himself. Perhaps they had been infected with a slow lingering death that would be worse than eaten alive.
Sergeant Hef returned. "We found nothing, sir, except corpses. The ghouls seemed to have killed everybody." He noticed Sergeant Hef was staring at his hand. He looked at it himself. There were bite marks there. When had he gotten them? He could not tell. He had not even felt any pain during the blazing emotional maelstrom of combat. Maybe when he had grappled with the ghoul. He offered up a prayer to the Light that he was not infected. He knew there was only one thing to do. He had no desire to end up like the dead thing in the dress over there.
"Sergeant, if you would be so kind as to bring me a torch and some whiskey."
Sergeant Hef did so, and Sardec applied the whiskey to his wound and set it alight. It burned and the stink of burning flesh reminded him uncomfortably of the time he lost his hand.
“One thing bothers me, sir,” said the Sergeant. Sardec looked at him Sergeant Hef’s worries were usually worth listening to.
“What’s that Sergeant?”
“What was that hag gibbering about? She seemed to think we had come to capture the ghouls instead of putting them down.”
Hef accompanied him as he strode over to look at the corpse. In death, it looked obscene, sprawled in the dirt with brains bubbling out through a hole in its head. He did not want to touch her even with his hook.
“Maybe she was mad,” said Sardec.
“Maybe, sir.” The Sergeant looked away into the mist. Sardec knew what he was thinking because he was thinking it too. Who in their right minds would want to capture ghouls? And why?
"Are you sure this is a wise idea, Milady?" Rik asked. He stared at the sorcerous contraption suspiciously, wondering how this thing was supposed to get them airborne. It was cold this early in the morning. The late autumnal sun had not yet had a chance to warm them. Benjario assured them that this was the best time to get aloft. Apparently the spirits of the aerosphere were more amenable at this hour of the day.
Lord Azaar watched from a platform nearby. His mask made it impossible to tell what he was thinking from his expression, but his whole posture radiated indifference.
All around the hillside a crowd had gathered. It seemed word of their experiment had spread through the city. Rik did not need to wonder how that had happened. People gossiped. Someone had known that Azaar and his bodyguards were setting up a pavilion here. Someone had erected that pavilion. Someone had talked. Possibly that someone had been Benjario. He was a man who wanted his name in the history books. Hopefully, Rik thought, surveying the crowd, none of Lady Asea's many enemies had decided that this would make a wonderful opportunity for doing away with her. He looked across at Karim. The Southerner was as intently focused on the sea of faces as Rik was.
"After your experience at the Serpent Tower I would have thought that flying engines would not bother you in the slightest," Asea replied. Today she wore no mask, no armour, just a long red gown. Her face was flushed. She looked excited; it was not every day she was offered a new experience. He just wished that he did not have to part of this one. None of the spectators looked filled with envy for his position despite Asea's beautiful presence nearby.
“My experience was not entirely voluntary," he said. "Nor exactly enjoyable."
"Then perhaps you will enjoy this," she said. Rik shook his head. He did not see how. The whole device looked very fragile. There was a wicker basket large enough for three or four passengers. Long ropes connected it to a vast sack of alchemically treated silk. Within the basket was a modified athenor, the sorcerous furnace used by wizards.
"Benjario can assure you it's perfectly safe," said the mechanism's creator. Benjario's long hair and bushy moustache had been recently dyed. Obviously he intended to look his best for his trip into the history books but the hair was too black in places and very grey in others. It did not inspire Rik with confidence in his claims to be a master of the alchemical arts. "Benjario would not risk his life, or the Lady's."
Rik liked the order of importance the alchemist put his life and Asea's in. Perhaps he could be relied on after all although Rik would still not have bet money on it. Benjario was a Mazarean, and the natives of that hot southern land were famous for their impetuosity.
"It would be a tragedy if the beauty of Lady Asea and the genius of Benjario were lost the world," he added. Rik winced.
Sardec was there. He looked stooped and worried. Rena was by his side. She seemed thoughtful. Rik gave her a small ironic wave, which she ignored. He noticed some of his old comrades in the crowd watching them. Rik waved to Weasel and the Barbarian. They looked particularly villainous as they waved back.
"How does this work again?" he asked.
"It is simplicity itself," said Benjario. "As Benjario has explained to the Lady Asea several times."
"Indulge my protege," she said. "He has a curious mind."
Benjario's sniff said that as a genius he had better things to do than explain his work to lackeys but that he would do so as a favour to her. He twisted the corner of his moustache for a moment as he collected his thoughts and then said, "The athenor is powered by marsh gas that feeds a trapped fire elemental. It heats the ambient air. The heated air is collected in the great sack, which Benjario has called a balloon. The hot air is lighter than the cold air that surrounds it, and it is this that lifts the sack skyward."
"You are saying that we will be lifted into the air by the air itself," said Rik, unable to quite keep the disbelief from his voice. Benjario looked affronted by this.
"By the excitation of the air elementals by the fire element. It will work. Benjario made trials before, back in his native Mazarea. And you have seen how a paper bag rises up a chimney."
"There is a difference between floating a paper bag up a chimney and lifting the weight of three adults and this basket," said Rik.
"Only in scale."
"It will work, Rik," said Asea with absolute certainty. "I have studied Benjario's figures and I agree with his conclusions if not the language he has couched them in."
"Did your trials involve lifting people?" Rik asked in a last frantic effort to dissuade her.
Benjario sucked his lips for a minute, tugged his moustache agitatedly and admitted, "No. Only rocks."
"So we shall be the first people to fly using your method," said Rik.
"As far as I know."
"Perhaps we should allow Mr Benjario to make his trial flight alone," said Rik. "Until we see how well it works."
"Benjario is ready," said Benjario.
"I wish to do this, Rik. I wish to fly on this machine. I am forbidden to fly dragons but I will fly."
"What if it goes wrong," said Rik.
"I am willing to take that risk. You do not have to go with me, although I would appreciate your presence."
"Why, Milady?" he asked her, one last time. He was certain there had to be more to this than vague ideas about doing something new.
"Because flying here on Gaeia has been a dream of mine, and how often does one get a chance to live out one's dreams. Even in a life as long as mine, such chances do not come often."
Rik could see she was not to be swayed from her plan. She was determined to go ahead with it and as he considered it, he thought he understood why. Only the Dragon Lords knew what it was like to soar through the upper air of Gaeia. No one in history had ever climbed into a wicker chariot drawn by elementals and headed for the sky before. By doing this Asea would be writing her name in the history books yet again, and adding to her own legend. Did she crave fame so much that she was willing to risk her life for it, he wondered? Or did she have some other motive. She smiled at him.
"On Al’Terra we rode the skies on great ships. There is not sufficient magical energy in this world to allow that, but this — this is a way to give us back the sky again, if it works. I have seen great schools of magic develop over the centuries from the simplest of experiments. Perhaps this will be the beginning of something new. Perhaps someday centuries hence, there will be flying engines once more. Ones that do not need the old magic to keep them aloft. And if that happens I will be able to fly in them."
He responded to the excitement in her voice. The idea began to grip his imagination and do battle with his fear. Another thought struck him. "How do we get down?"
Benjario said: "We slowly kill the supply of hot air to the balloon. It will bring us back to the ground."
"Won't we fall?"
"No. The hot air will dissipate gently and we will be wafted back towards the ground. Shall we go, Milady? The day is getting no younger. And we must get aloft when conditions are propitious."
Asea nodded. Benjario opened a small gate in the side of the wicker basket to allow them to board and then tied it closed again. Once inside he ignited the athenor and twisted a knob to feed it the trapped elemental gas. A strange sickly smell filled the air and made Rik quite light headed. A jet of flame, like dragon's breath, belched forth. The crowd shrieked and drew back, at once appalled and thrilled.
Servants held the mouth of the balloon open and Rik could see that it was indeed slowly starting to fill up, like a paper sack into which someone breathed. He only hoped it would not pop with a bang. Slowly the balloon began to stand erect as hot air filled it.
"Reminds me of something," the Barbarian bellowed from nearby. "Although it’s not quite big enough."
The crowd jeered and groaned.
"He was talking about his head," shouted Weasel. "It's just as swollen and just as empty."
"Everyone is a jester," muttered Benjario. "Benjario is about to make history and they make a joke. Well soon we shall see who the joke is upon. "
Rik's stomach lurched as the basket trembled and shifted and the balloon bobbed skywards. He looked at Asea; she surveyed the crowd with a calm look upon her face, but her eyes looked huge and her nostrils flared. By the Light, Rik thought, this thing might just work.
He looked up. The balloon was impossibly huge above them, swollen with hot air, the fabric rippling slightly in the wind. What if it ripped, he wondered, but was afraid to ask. Benjario must have thought about that too, he told himself, and if he hadn't Asea would have.
"Let go of the ropes," Benjario shouted, lifting his wide-brimmed hat with a showman's flourish. The brawny servants holding the ropes anchoring the balloon let go. Some of them stumbled and fell. More of the crowd shrieked. The balloon lifted off. The basket followed it. Before he had quite realised it, with a sensation something akin to being in a dream, Rik was airborne. He could see people looking up at him. Some waved, some stood open mouthed. Weasel and the Barbarian made obscene gestures and roared their enthusiasm. The basket lurched again, and so did Rik's stomach. He knew there was now just a thin layer of woven straw beneath his feet. He measured the distance. They were only about ten feet in the air. He could still jump if he wanted to. Their height doubled. He noticed they were moving, blown by the wind. The crowd rolled by beneath them even as the ground dropped away.
They were as high as a bridgeback's head now. Rik knew this exactly since they had just passed one. The massive creature stared at them in seeming astonishment, then opened its mouth in a great bellow. Asea's laughter held as much excitement as merriment. Benjario waved his hat at the thing as if shooing away an inquisitive dog. Rik held the side of the basket and wondered at his fear and excitement.
He had a head for heights. No one could be a successful burglar in Sorrow without one. He had fled over the roofs of tenements while armed guards pursued him and slates broke off and slid away under his feet. He had leapt the distance between two buildings over alleys where the drop would have killed him if he had missed his step. He had hung from his sweat slippery fingers from windowsills while the householders prowled inside. Nothing had ever made his heart race the way this did. He tried to work out why, concentrating on the sensations of flight as he did so.
He could feel hot air rising from the athenor behind him, even as the cold breeze stroked his cheeks and stirred his hair. The prickly wickerwork bit into his fingers where he clutched it, and the whole basket swayed gently in motion. He could hear the crackle of flame and the shifting fabric of the balloon.
Perhaps it was the novelty of the sensation, he thought, or perhaps it was that so much could go wrong. Whatever else had happened the buildings had always been solid beneath his feet — even if he fell, they would still be there. On the balloon there was the appalling sensation of having nothing beneath him but empty air. If the ropes gave way or the floating mountain of fabric above them caught fire, they would fall to their deaths. He did some swift calculations. If the wicker basket looked as if it was about to fall he would leap up and grab the ropes. Perhaps he could hold onto them for long enough to let the balloon reach the earth again. That would be a slim chance, he thought, and then it struck him exactly what was wrong.
His fate was out of his hands. There was almost nothing he could do if something went wrong. He could not save himself by skill, or speed of reflex or by main strength. Up here he was entirely in the hands of God. It was not a sensation he enjoyed, but there was no way he could alter the facts. As that struck him, he began to relax slightly and pay more attention to what lay below them.
They were high up now. People were tiny and the outlines of fields were visible. Trees looked small and strange seen from this odd angle. Ahead of them lay the spires and rooftops of the town. Asea pointed out the Temple and Parliament Square and the Royal Palace. He could see the layout of the Imperial City as clearly as on a map, the great radial roads that ran like the spokes of a great wheel from Parliament Square to the gates, and the buildings that lined them. This city had been built to a plan, and it was an awesome one.
He saw the river running south from the western docks. He felt that if they got high enough he could follow its progress all the way to the Sea of Dragons. As it was, the gigantic trading barges and the great wyrms that towed them looked like child’s toys in the distance.
People looked up as they passed overhead. Some of them waved. Some of them ran indoors as if they had seen a huge demon pass by and were afraid it would swoop down and devour them. A few soldiers even raised their rifles and appeared about to take a shot at them.
"Idiots! Idiots! Idiots!" cursed Benjario, turning the knob and feeding the fire elemental more marsh gas.
As they did so Asea muttered a charm. Rik felt a tingling sensation pass over him. Whether because of the range or Asea's magic the shooters missed. Rik was glad that Weasel was not among the marksmen firing at them. He would have put a hole in the balloon.
Soon they were so high that was no longer a problem. The town stretched below them. Now the streets were filled as they passed overhead, and Rik thought he heard the shrieks and shouts of the crowds, all blending together like the roar of the sea or water passing over a fall.
"…artillery spotting," he heard Benjario say, and it hit him then that this was not entirely a pleasure vehicle they were riding in, whatever Asea might claim. It could be used to spot for armies and artillery batteries and draw maps of the insides of cities under siege. The alchemist looked almost demonic, so filled with triumph was he. A lifetime's work was being vindicated. Asea looked scarcely less thrilled.
Of course, he thought, there were weaknesses in the scheme. The balloons would be vulnerable to sorcery and dragons. There appeared to be no way you could control their flight, although he supposed they could be anchored with ropes. Of course, they could be used in the winter when dragons were dormant and most likely they could be protected from magic by wards. But who fought wars in the winter? As far as Rik could tell their utility would be limited.
They kept rising and Rik noticed it was getting colder. He moved closer to the athenor to get some heat, and then looked back. Wisps of cloud surrounded them now and he could see nothing. Water condensed on his face.
"I think we should go down now," he heard Asea say, although she was now just a ghostly outline in the cloud mist.
"Benjario is your servant," the alchemist replied. Rik heard him fiddling with the athenor and slowly the balloon began to descend. They emerged from the clouds and he saw fields and the river below them, and the city behind. A troop of cavalry raced along the roads below, apparently determined to keep pace, and intercept them when they reached the ground. Rik was very glad that Asea was with them. She was a Lady of the First and a friend of the Queen. He would have hated to have had to explain to a Terrarch cavalry captain exactly what he and Benjario had been up to if they had been on their own.
A glance over his shoulder showed him something else. There was a rapidly expanding dot on the horizon, and even at this distance he could see it was far too large to be a bird. It closed the distance rapidly, greenish red scales and the polished silver armour of its rider glittering in the sun.
"A dragon," he said, praying to God that its rider did not take them for an enemy. With one burst of its breath a dragon could set fire to the balloon, with a slash of its claws it could knock them from the sky. As he watched it came ever closer.
“We are lucky to see one,” said Asea. “They normally begin to hibernate at this time of year.”
Even as dread filled it, Rik knew this was a sight he would never forget. How many mortals ever got this close to a dragon in flight and lived? On the ground the great beasts were beautiful but here they were as much in their element as birds or devilwings. With its great pinions outstretched and its long tail snaking out behind it, the dragon was larger than their balloon and far more graceful. It swept past them so close Rik could see the rider's crystalline goggles glittering in the sunlight, and see the patterns of scales along its flanks. As he swept by the Dragon Rider raised his fist in salute, and it came to Rik then that all of this had been planned, that of course Asea would have notified the proper authorities of what they were up to, and that the dragon and the cavalrymen below were most likely present to ensure her safety or to recover her body in case of accident. Rik looked at Benjario. In the unlikely event of the Mazarean having any plans of kidnapping them, they were safe, and he knew it.
The dragon swept around them now almost playfully, and Rik once more wondered at its beauty and grace. What would it be like to ride atop that mountain of muscle and power, he wondered? Certainly far more thrilling than riding within this rickety contraption. In this race Asea was putting money on the wrong horse. In a world that had dragons what need had anyone of balloons?
Almost as soon as he thought it, the answer came to him. Anyone could ride in a balloon. Flying on dragon-back was limited to the very few who had the immense wealth to own one, and the training and the skill to mount the great beasts. Ballooning was a form of flight that was open to all. In some ways it was the sign of a newer, more democratic society. Asea would be aware of that of course and, like a true Scarlet, she was making sure she was associated with it.
As the balloon descended his respect for her intelligence and courage increased proportionately. She looked over at him and winked.
The balloon drifted closer to the earth. As it did so, Rik detected a new threat. Hedges surrounded many of the fields. Stone walls surrounded others. If they crashed into one of those while they landed, he doubted it would do them a great deal of good. Now that the flight was coming to an end he found that he was starting to regret it. There had been something strangely satisfying about sweeping near silently over the land, and looking down at the Kharadrean earth from the sort of perspective that only God, birds and dragons enjoyed.
They were at treetop height now, and swinging towards a hedge. As soon as he realized this Benjario fed the elemental in the athenor some marsh gas and they rose slightly. Rik could see they were going to miss the obstruction. It looked like they were going to make a soft and easy landing. The dragon swept over as if in salute.
The harshness of the impact caught Rik by surprise. Suddenly the wicker-basket was banging through a field, seemingly hitting ever stone. The basket juddered and bounced with the impact and all three of them were thrown about within it. It seemed ludicrous that there was the possibility of an accident now, in this field, when they had cruised through the sky without mishap, but it was all too easy to imagine a fall. Or hitting the red hot side of the athenor. Or having it tip and hit one of them.
Suddenly the flight was all over. The basket lay on its side and the balloon deflated beside them. Slowly they clambered from the basket and surveyed their surroundings.
"That could have gone better," said Rik, but relief was flooding through him. He was back on the ground. The earth was firm beneath his feet. He was still alive and so were the others. He had flown through the air. He was among the first humans ever to have done so and lived.
A farmer and his family peered timidly at them from a nearby stone croft house. The dragon wheeled overhead. The cavalry troop thundered towards them, drawing up in line and presenting their blades in salute to Asea. Their faces were smiling and at their officer’s command they broke into cheers. She accepted this tribute with the grace of one who had had centuries of practice doing so. Benjario took a bow as well and no one seemed to mind. They even applauded Rik. It looked like the three of them were heroes.
An hour later as they rode in a newly summoned coach back to the city, the sensation of triumph still had not left Rik.
Rik followed Asea down the stairwell. It was warm and dark in the cellars below the Palace. He had to stoop. His head brushed the ceiling as the stairs wound downward.
Excitement made his heart beat faster. Today, they were going to practise his first real sorcery. Yesterday's balloon flight had taken them across some sort of threshold. Asea had decided that he was ready to be initiated into the first of the great mysteries of her craft. He was not sure what she intended, but it was something that needed darkness and secrecy. A whole section of the cellars beneath the Palace had been cleared.
A massive door barred the entrance to the cellar. Karim waited beside it, a naked sword in his hand, his face blank and expressionless. They entered the chamber. Asea slipped the heavy bolt into place. Rik considered the metal-bound entrance and the massive bar and realised that they would be secure against a small army. The ritual must involve making them very vulnerable if it needed this level of precaution. The security was for Asea. No one cared whether he died or not.
The place was prepared for their arrival. Complex patterns of Elder Signs and alchemical runes had been inscribed in chalk upon the floor. Patterns of coloured salt swirled around the edges. In the centre of the largest circle in the middle of the chamber was a small brazier on which steamed a bowl. More braziers were placed at intersections of the patterns.
"Walk to the central circle, aspirant," said Asea. He did so, as he had been taught, being careful not to touch any of the lines. The patterns were wards. The slightest disturbance could make them vulnerable to inimical forces from outside of normal space and time.
Once he had done so, Asea too walked along the corridors of the pattern, speaking words of power that caused the braziers to light. The air filled with the smell of narcotic incense. Rik's skin tingled and his eyes burned. Asea joined him in the central circle. Picking up a wand of power, she closed the entrance to the corridor of lines down which they had walked, completing the pattern. She spoke the words of an ancient spell, and then bowed from the waist to the eight points of the astrological compass, invoking the names of various guardian spirits. This done, she indicated that he should sit, cross-legged as he had been taught, before the brazier. She did the same.
She picked up a knife from the tools laid out along the brazier and held it in the flame until it was hot. She took powdered alchemical compounds from a small herb-box and placed them on the blade. They sizzled.
"Put out your hand." He did so, palm up, and she slashed it with the knife. The herbs went into the wound, making it smart at first, and then tingle until it went numb. She did the same to her own hand, and then placed them together so that blood mingled where the cuts had been made. With her free hand she offered him a wafer. As he had been previously instructed, he bit half of it and chewed and swallowed, and she did the same.
They continued to hold hands over the brazier. Her hand was cool and smooth, her fingers stronger than they looked. He breathed in the fume-filled air and his head swam. Dizziness and nausea twisted his senses.
Asea chanted words. He repeated them, mindlessly, echoing her words. They had a strange rhythm, a metre that seemed to scan at the same rate as his heartbeat. As the beat of the chant slowed so did that of his heart. He wondered if her heart was doing the same.
All his extremities felt numb now, and he wondered if he had been poisoned.
All drugs are poisons. The thought slid into his head from somewhere else. It would have startled him more if he had not experienced something like it before, when he had communed with the ancient alien priest in the heart of the Tower of Serpents. Was it his imagination or was it really the voice of the Lady Asea sounding within his head?
This is real, but difficult. Your mind is protected against intrusions such as this, only the drugs and the physical contact and the ritual make this possible. You are indeed what I suspected you to be, Rik.
Shadowblood, he asked.
As the thoughts swirled between them, they continued to chant. The words flowing into him from her now, so that their voices had merged. His stomach lurched and his mind screamed at the vertigo and he was standing above himself, looking down at his body.
Fear filled him, worse than the fear of flying in the balloon. Had she killed him? Was this what death was like?
Sardec looked the surgeon in the eye, trying to gauge his response. The doctor was a tall, slender Terrarch dressed in white robes. His face was unreadable. He listened to Sardec's pulse with his fingers, looked into his eyes.
"Am I going to die?" Sardec asked at last. The doctor had treated his burn after he returned from the cemetery, and had told him to return in a couple of days.
The surgeon gave him a frosty smile. "No. But I do not think that is what is worrying you."
"Am I going to become a ghoul?"
"I think it unlikely. It is very rare for the disease among Terrarchs. It did not exist on Al'Terra. It was the scourge of humans before we came, and began wiping the creatures out."
"The Terrarch in the graveyard was a ghoul. She looked like the queen of all ghouls."
"I said it was very rare for the disease to affect our kind. Not impossible."
"What are the chances of me…becoming like her?"
"Far, far less than for those of your men who were bitten."
"But not out of the question?"
"How long till I know?"
"If you were a human symptoms might manifest within twenty four hours. If they did not appear within three days, then the chances would be that you were clear. That’s why I asked you to come back today."
"But of course I am not a human."
"So how long?"
"I do not know. Cases of the ghoul plague among Terrarchs are rare and records rarer still. I would think that within a few days we will know."
"A few more days…" Sardec's outrage was explosive.
"Perhaps longer. Among humans there are cases of men being bitten and not showing any signs of the disease for years, and then, one day turning on their neighbours, friends and families. Of course, humans do that anyway, without the excuse of a disease." Sardec realised that the surgeon was attempting to lighten the situation with a little humour, but he did not find it funny.
"You are saying that the disease can remain dormant for years."
"Apparently so, unless the people we are talking about were secretly consorting with ghouls all along. You never know with humans." Apparently the surgeon was a little offended that his joke had gotten no response, so he had decided to repeat it with a variation. Sardec smiled politely. He supposed it was much easier for the surgeon to take this calmly. After all he was not the one who had been bitten. Sardec wondered whether he should bite the medical officer. Maybe then he would understand. The grotesque humour of that made him smile, and the doctor smiled back.
"I would not worry, Lieutenant. You and your men took all the correct precautions. I would say there is an excellent chance that you will never develop the disease."
That was a little more reassuring. Sardec found himself asking the question he had hoped not to have to ask. "If they…or I…do have it what can we do?"
The surgeon's cold smile faded. "Nothing much I am afraid. Once the disease is incubated it is irreversible and incurable."
"Nothing. Except put you out of your misery."
"Then we should best pray, my men and I," said Sardec.
"If it helps you feel better," said the surgeon. "Place the matter in the hands of God."
Rik looked over his dead looking body. He could see a shimmering translucent outline. It was Asea. She looked subtly different from how he saw her in real life, and he wondered if this was how she saw herself.
If this is death, then I have suffered it too. But this is not death, merely something like it.
Is this your soul? Is it mine?
Perhaps. It is just a ka, a projection of your mind beyond your body, an imprint of your will upon the aether.
Rik was not sure he saw a difference, but it seemed to mean something to Asea. Her spirit reached out to him.
Come — we must go — before the effects of the drug wear off.
To the Deep. To the Great Deep. You will see the first and most important secret of sorcery with the eyes of your spirit.
He took her immaterial hand with his. There was a sensation of contact quite unlike the meeting of flesh with flesh. Space and time seemed to bend and flow about him, and suddenly a whirlpool appeared in the air, reality shimmering around it. From it he heard voices, they impinged on his soul, sounds that were not sounds audible only to ears that were not ears.
What is it, he asked?
An entrance to elsewhere.
The realm of the spirit.
I don’t understand.
You do not need to understand — just follow.
Asea dived into the swirling distortion in space. For a moment Rik hesitated, and then with a supreme effort of will, he followed, plunging into a very different realm of existing.
There was no land below. At least not at first. They floated free in ultimate night. All around was blackness save for the glow they made. Rik was sickly, dizzyingly disorientated. Everything was chaotic, a jumble of images and sensations that threatened to overwhelm his mind.
Then slowly sanity seemed to come. A kaleidoscope of images whirled through his brain. He saw the streets of Sorrow, but they were larger than he remembered, the buildings huge on a scale that dwarfed even those of Halim. All around were people, giants. He realised that this was the city of his earliest memories, when he and Leon had escaped from the Temple Street Orphanage. The people had a twisted monstrous look, more ogre than human. He looked at Asea. She was the same, a luminous figure, human in scale.
What are we doing here?
We are looking for a place where you can connect with your power.
Where is that?
No one really knows — it may be inside your mind. It may be inside the Deep. It may be the place where those two meet. It is the realm of spirit, perhaps the deeper level of dream. Now be still and let your mind open. Practise the exercises I taught. If you sense something let yourself be drawn towards it.
Rik did as he was told. He focused on the Elder Signs. He tried to empty his mind, to reach deep into his being, to touch the power that he had been told was there. Then for the first time he felt something. It was small and distant but it called to him. He tried to clear his mind and let it draw him. He noticed that the ground was drifting away beneath him, although Asea’s spirit was close. The higher they went, the faster they moved. There was no sensation of speed, but the world dwindled beneath them swiftly and it seemed that the stars were rushing closer.
No. What he had thought to be the stars were glowing objects much closer than the stars of heaven. They were like tiny blocks of land floating in this great void. Amid them was a glow. With an effort of will, he made for it, shooting after Asea at a speed that was breathtaking. Soon they hovered above the surface of a tiny worldlet. Its surface was inscribed with strange runes. Swirling patterns shimmered in his vision.
What is this?
Your place of power, your connection to the Great Deep.
He remembered what she had taught him about the Great Deep. It was the place where all magical energy came from. It lay below, above and around their home plane. It intersected with others. The gateways passed through it. It was the road to Al'Terra.
How can the Deep be within my mind?
All minds touch it one way or another. The difference is that a sorcerer knows it, and can use it. And there are things that dwell in the Deep that know this too. Demons can break through into your mind here, if you let them.
Why have you brought me here?
So that you could see it. So that you could begin to understand. And so that you could forge a link to the Deep. It is the source of all power. You must tap it to work magic. You must draw tau from it.
How do I do that?
I will show you. This place is your place of power. But there are dangers in forging a link with it.
What are they?
Listen and I will tell you.
Rik listened. All around him he felt the pulse of strange powers. He felt reality shimmer and twist. Perhaps it was the drugs he had taken back in the cellar, but he doubted it. He felt it was somehow connected to the very nature of this place.
Things are not how you see them here, Rik. This is an alien place. What you are seeing is only how your mind interprets something completely alien to it. It is trying to make the incomprehensible comprehensible.
That is a very strange concept.
No more strange than our existence back in Gaeia. There is a world beyond that we perceive with our six senses, Rik. This is one of the first truths of being a sorcerer. We do not see reality. We see only a slice of it. Dogs smell things we cannot smell, hear things we cannot hear. Your eyes can see into darkness where no normal human can see. A cat's eyes see further still. We do not see reality, only a slice of it.
Rik could see the logic of what Asea was saying but could not see how it related to what was going on around him.
Reality is a construct inside our minds. Normally the process is one way. Reality floods us through our senses. What sorcerers learn to do is take the model of the world inside their heads and force reality to conform to it.
That sounds mad.
Perhaps it is. But it can be done, but only in small ways, and only with enormous amounts of help. You need to tap energy to do it. You need to control and mould that energy and bring it into our world. The Deep is where that energy comes from. It is the source of all tau.
She had taught him often enough about tau, ambient magical energy, and how there had been more of it on Al'Terra than there was on Gaeia which was why the magic worked there was only a pale shadow of what it had been on the Terrarchs homeworld. He asked her why?
The walls between the worlds are thicker on Gaeia. It is harder to reach the Deep and the power must be drawn from further down in the well. It takes longer and it is not so abundant, at least in most places.
There are places where the walls are thinner, he said. He knew this to be true. Like at Deep Achenar where Uran Ultar, the Spider God came through.
Yes, and in those places, power is most abundant. They were the sacred sites of the old witches, the places of power of the demon gods. In truth they are simply weak points in the fabric of our reality, where alien energy bleeds in. It flows out from those places, like water from a spring. At such places even those with almost no magical talent can work spells, like Zarahel did, but as you get further from those spots, the power is spread so thinly that it might as well not be there. If you wish to use magic regularly you need a direct connection to a source. You need to be able to reach down and tap a spring of power.
And this is what we are going to do here.
No. This is what you are going to do here. Reach out and touch this wellspring. Place your hand in it. It will be painful but you will endure. It might destroy you. It might drive you mad. It would certainly do that to any human who tried this but you are only half-human.
What if I don't want to do this?
Then you will never be a true sorcerer. You will be at the mercy of your surroundings, and incapable of true magic.
Rik considered her words. As ever he wished he had some way of knowing whether what she was saying was true. Perhaps there were many ways of tapping power. Certainly there were tales that had hinted at such, and the Old Witch, his first tutor in matters magical had claimed this was so. Asea seemed to sense the direction of his thoughts.
Oh you will be capable of thanatomancy, of draining the life force of others and using it in your rites. You will be able to devour their souls as beasts consume food, and like food it will give you strength. In the long run, it will also turn you mad, and you will become a beast of shadow. Is that what you want?
Rik knew that he was being tested here. It did not really matter what he wanted. It was what Asea wanted that mattered, and he suspected that if he gave the wrong answer she would destroy him. He was certain that she did not want another dark mage running loose in the world. Did he want to be like that anyway? He did not think so.
It is not a case of what you think you want, Rik. It is a case of who you are. You are a sorcerer and the power calls to you. Eventually you will be tempted to use it and you will find the means to. You have walked too far along the path to change direction now. The question is how you will walk the path. It forks here — one way leads to shadow. The other way leads to mastery.
No. Not light — but to a place where you will be the master of the power, rather than the power being the master of you.
But that way may lead to destruction or madness, here and now?
Exactly so. Now is the time to choose. Which path, Rik? Which path?
Sardec strode into the room. Rena looked up from her knitting. She sat in a chair before the fire. She looked very peaceful and there was a serenity in the way she smiled. Sardec let out a long breath and began to tug off his boots.
"Let me help you," she said. "Take a seat. I will pull them off."
Unreasoning anger filled Sardec. He did not want to do what she said. Who was she to tell him what to do? "I am not a cripple," he said, all too aware of the lie contained in his words.
"I never said you were," she said. She looked shocked and a little angry. Who was she to be angry with him? How bold she was becoming. Even a few days ago she would never have let such emotion show upon her face.
"You take too many liberties!" he roared. She backed off. Fear and something else showed in her face. In his current state, that merely gratified him. He sat down in his own chair and began to tug at his own boots. With only one hand and a hook, it was heavy going and he was very clumsy. He felt his face flush with effort and embarrassment but he was not going to start asking for help now. He continued to tug at the boot, angry that there were no servants here.
She backed away into the corner, as if afraid, which annoyed him even more. When had he ever given her cause to be afraid of him? He had been nothing but the soul of gentleness to her. Too gentle perhaps if she could behave like this in front of him.
"What is it?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
"There's nothing wrong," Sardec almost shouted, aware that there was something very wrong. Was it the disease? Had it already started to affect him or was it simply his own emotional reaction to the strain.
"You are not normally like this." He let out his breath in a long sigh. Calmness slowly returned.
"You are right," he said. He could not quite bring himself to ask for forgiveness. It would not have been seemly for a Terrarch of his rank to admit that such a thing was necessary to a human. "You are right."
She rushed over to him and took his fleshly hand. "What has happened?"
He told her of the ghoul bite and of the Terrarch woman in the graveyard.
"I do not believe anything will happen to you," she said.
"I wish I was so certain."
"The surgeon seemed to think the chances were very low."
"The same was true for the lady at the mausoleum."
"You must not let this get you down. You are brave. Do not let it trouble your spirit. Why worry about what might never happen?" She smiled at him, and he could see that she was worried about him already, and that touched him. Oddly enough the need to reassure her began to take the edge off his own concerns. He forced himself to nod, and say, "You are right. And forgive me for yelling at you earlier. I did not mean to."
"There is nothing to forgive," she said. He knew otherwise. She would have to forgive him a lot, if only she knew his thoughts.
Rik came to the conclusion that he did not have much of a choice in this matter. If he was going to return home to his flesh, he knew he was going to have to brave the dangerous path. He was going to have to forge a link with the source of power they had found here. He said so.
Very well, extend your hand into the vortex.
He reached out to touch the swirling cyclone of magical energy. He did not know what to expect. Fire and pain perhaps but what he got was like nothing he had prepared himself for. There was pain and there were other things, a welling joy so intense it made him want to weep, a sense of well-being, of peace and calm that he never wanted to let go. He sensed his consciousness expanding outwards and away, like ripples where a stone has broken the surface of a lake. It was like touching the mind of God.
The pain and the power bubbled into him, cleansing him, showing him the things that lurked in the shadows of his own mind. Somehow they did not seem so frightening now that he had looked upon them; in fact they seemed small and petty, just like himself. He felt the urge to open his mind, to let the knowledge and the wonder flow through him, to become one with the cosmic all, to let his spirit disintegrate into a million fragments and be absorbed by the universe. Perhaps this was what death was like, he thought, and if that was so, it was not such a bad thing.
He could let go of himself, of his petty fears and ambitions. Who was he anyway, and what did he matter in the great scheme of things. His own egotism was what crippled him. All he had to do was let go of it and fade. It would bring him peace and an end to all struggles and all pain. The power mounted in him, and he began to hear singing, like that of a choir of angels. He knew that if only he let go of himself, let the beauty of those ethereal voices sweep over him and cleanse him, he could become like them, he could join them in bliss forever.
Somewhere in the depths of his mind a small nagging voice countered the singing. He told himself that what he was hearing was false, the lure of demons and of death. In his soul, he did not really believe that but the resistance was important. Part of him did not want to surrender, part of him wanted to live, to complete his business among the living.
He tried to block out the singing, to resist its lure, to pull his hand from the spell vortex. He found that he could not. He was locked in place by that siren song and the source of it. Fear tickled the edges of his mind. A note of discord entered the triumphant harmony. The music did not seem quite so overpoweringly spiritual.
He let the fear speak to him. He tried to draw strength from it, and from the anger that followed inevitably in its wake. Fear and anger, the two emotions that dominated his thinking, and that had defined him for as long as he had lived. He tapped into the memories they brought back, of the beatings in the orphanage, and the constant fight for survival in the streets of Sorrow. He remembered his anger at Sabina who had betrayed him, and his terror of Antonio, the fat gang-lord who was her lover and whom they had both betrayed. He remembered the battles he had fought with the Foragers, and his rage and terror when Sardec had ordered him flogged. Slowly a bit at a time, he rebuilt himself, first as an engine of anger and fear, and then he filled in the gaps, remembering his small joys and pleasures, and the hoarded scraps of good experiences that had come to him.
He remembered the good times with Sabina, and with Rena. He recalled his friendships with Leon and the Foragers, and even in a strange way with Asea. Slowly he came closer to being himself, and further away from those seductive voices. Inch by inch he pulled his hand from the vortex, and he noticed that it was limned with fire, and traceries of light connected him to the thing.
I thought you were lost.
I think I was, he replied, but I have found myself now. He was not sure what he had become, but he was sure that he had changed.
It is time to return.
Rik looked up and saw a white sun overhead. Slowly, it came to him that it was carved from plaster and set in the ceiling of his room in the Palace. He felt tired and weak and his hand hurt. He recalled what had happened in the spirit realm, as he would have recalled a dream or a nightmare. He tried to sit up but the strength drained out of him. As he slumped back onto the thick goose-feather filled pillows he saw that Asea sat on the far side of the chamber, in a claw footed ornamental chair. She put the book she was reading down, and said; "The first time is always the most difficult. Some never recover from it."
"I will," said Rik. "At least I think I am starting to."
She smiled. "That is good."
"What really happened? Was it a dream? Did I really visit the Spirit Realm and touch the Great Deep?"
"Perhaps. Nobody really understands, and every school of magic has different theories. Some think the rite is merely a shared hallucination that helps awaken a mage’s powers."
"What do you think, Milady?"
"It is as I told you when we were in the other place. I think it is both a dream and a reality, where mind touches the Deep."
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He did feel different now. For all his weakness, he felt as if he could access a secret source of strength and draw power from it. He said so.
"You can, Rik. You forged a direct connection between the Deep and your spirit. You are bound to it now. You can draw magical energy through it once you know the correct techniques."
"Techniques, spells, whatever you want to call them. Incantations and rituals are merely ways of preparing the mind and the soul, of focusing attention and will."
"You will teach me these?"
"I have already started to. Many of the basic exercises we practised will enable you to draw on the power now. Those spells you thought would never work. But there are dangers. Before you do such things you should cleanse your mind by meditating upon the Elder Signs. That is the most basic and essential tool of all."
"I will remember that."
"See that you do so. I have never lost an apprentice and I do not intend that you should be the first."
"There have been others?"
"Many. Over the years. Mostly on Al'Terra before the coming of the Princes of Shadow." He sensed that this was not a subject she wanted to talk about.
"What are the dangers?"
"I have told you before. When you draw energy, you puncture a small hole in the fabric of reality. Shadow stuff leaks through this. You must be careful not to be contaminated by it. And you must be careful when you draw on the power. There are creatures in the Deep that can enter you through it."
"Demons. Beings of power and malice."
"They can find the link you had me create?"
"When you draw on the power, yes. When you do not, it is so tenuous as to be invisible. When you use magic it glows in the Deep. The chances of something coming across it by accident are small but they do exist. The more powerful the magic you attempt, the greater the chance of attracting such a demon."
"When will I be able to work magic?"
"Ah! The eternal question of the keen apprentice." There was a hint of mockery in her voice. "You can do so now. Run through the Elder Signs I taught you and then attempt the visualization of the light."
He closed his eyes and conjured up the image of the protective signs. They blazed bright in his mind's eye. Then he imagined a sphere of light appearing over the bed. As he did so he spoke the words he had been taught, and something within him answered the rhythm of the spell as it had never done before. A faint glowing ball appeared over the bed, so tenuous at first that he was not even sure it was there. As he continued the chant, it grew brighter. Triumph filled him. He had achieved his first small piece of magic. He had never known anything quite like it, not even when he had listened to the angel voices of the Deep. He was a mage now, even if only in the smallest of ways. He looked over at Asea. "Thank you," he said.
"Don't thank me yet."
Something burned within his chest as he did so, and the sensation spread outwards through his veins. Weakness washed over him in a wave. Strength spilled from him like wine from an over-turned goblet. The ball of light popped out of existence. He felt suddenly sick and nauseous. His breath came in great gasps. Sweat beaded his forehead.
"Magic is always draining. Very draining. Casting even a simple spell is as tiring as running a long race or lifting a very heavy weight."
"Why did you not tell me?"
"I have told you many times. You appear to have forgotten."
"I meant just now."
"It's something that is best experienced. You remember it better that way."
"Will it always be this bad?"
"Magic is like anything else. The more you practise, the better you get. Or perhaps it’s like lifting weights. You start out with a small weight and eventually you build up your strength until you can lift heavier."
"I am still grateful. This is the greatest gift anyone has ever given me." From the bottom of his heart, he meant it. It was nothing less than the truth. She had made one of his childhood dreams come true. Whatever she was, and whatever she did or was going to do, nothing would change that.
"It was always your gift, Rik. I merely helped awaken it. But over the years you will find the gift becomes a curse."
"I don't think so."
"Nobody ever does. At least not at first. Now rest. Get your strength back. We have a great deal to do, and not much time to do it in."
Sardec strode through the city streets. Rena walked by his side. The ways through the old quarter were winding and full of people, out trying to buy what goods were available. As always there were hawkers everywhere selling everything from sweetmeats to scraps of clothing.
He tried to ignore the stares of the crowd, and the gawking of some of the local Terrarchs. He kept his face frozen in a mask of aristocratic arrogance. No one here was in any position to judge him. The blood of Dragon Lords flowed in his veins, and what he chose to do, and who he chose to be with, was his own business and no one else's. He told himself this, but on the inside he found it hard to believe. There were those out there who felt they had the right to judge him, and that they would do so. There would be gossip and tittle-tattle and all the usual feline nastiness of chattering society.
He felt suspended between two poles of emotion, happy that Rena was there and worried about the bite the ghoul had given him. Just her presence near him made him happy in a way he would never have believed was possible. He had a sense of closeness to another living being that he had never felt before. It had nothing to do with class or intelligence or education. It operated on a much more primal level. It was like being bound by a magical spell and he had no objection to it in the least. Her nearness allowed him, just for a moment, to forget about his worries.
Just for a moment. He knew now that he could die, and in a peculiarly horrible fashion. He had felt his mortality since Deep Achenar when he had lost his sword hand. He had known ever since then that he was lucky to be alive. It was a feeling that grew stronger after every battle. He was used to it. He was a soldier. But the bite, that was something else. It could do more than kill him. It could rob him of his pride, of his intelligence, perhaps of his very soul if the tales were true.
A small shriek from beside him drew him from his reverie. He had been so engrossed in his own thoughts that he had lost track of the world around him. He noticed that scraps of food were hitting the ground all around him. Most of them were hitting Rena then he saw their source.
A group of Terrarch officers sat at a cafe table. There were a good number of empty wine bottles on the table. Chunks of bread sat on a wicker basket. The Terrarchs’ faces were a little flushed. They were tearing up the bread and tossing it at Rena. Sardec walked between her and them. A bit of bread hit him in the face. He stared at the one who had thrown it.
"What exactly do you think you are doing, sir?" he asked. Something of his anger must have shown in his voice. The officer he glared at flinched under his gaze, then he realised what he had done and that just seemed to anger him more.
"We were feeding your monkey." Sardec felt his own face flush with anger, and perhaps a hint of shame.
Sardec looked from Rena then back to the officer. "I don't possess any monkeys, sir, and I don't think its fitting for Terrarch officers to behave like a pack of them."
One of the officer’s friends made a face. "Oh, the famous Lieutenant Sardec does not like us feeding his monkey. Perhaps he prefers to feed her himself. And I think we know what he likes to feed her."
Rena tugged his hand. "Come away," she whispered in his ear. "They are drunk. They don't know what they are saying."
"You have me at a disadvantage, sir," said Sardec. "You appear to know my name and I am unacquainted with yours."
"Come away," Rena whispered more urgently. Sardec knew she was right. He should just ignore these louts, but something in him was responding to their taunts. He had found a focus for his worries and his fears.
"It looks like the Lieutenant takes orders from his monkey," said the first speaker.
"I would say that was conduct unbefitting of a Terrarch officer," said the second drunk. Sardec reached out with his hook and snagged the officer's tunic. He pulled him off his chair so that they were standing face to face.
"I asked you for your name, sir, please be so kind as to tell me it." The drunks rose from their chairs. Hands went to the hilts of swords.
"Do you wish to fight me, Lieutenant," said the officer. "What will it be: hooks at dawn?"
That caused another roar of laughter from his friends.
"Was that a challenge?" Sardec asked calmly. Iciness had settled in his veins now. He was not going to be insulted by these oafs. He saw the officer he confronted swallow but he rallied and said: "I will not cross swords with a cripple."
"Perhaps you would prefer pistols?" Sardec suggested. His fury gave his voice a politeness and a calmness that he would never have suspected himself capable of. He was suddenly totally aware of his surroundings as he normally only was in combat. He saw the faces of the onlookers. The Terrarchs looked worried. The Kharadreans looked pleased to see this falling out among their conquerors. Rena was terrified. Despite the look on her face the words just slipped out. "Or are you afraid?"
That was a challenge to which there could be only one response from a Queen's Officer and everyone present knew it. The group of drunkards had gone quiet now, the seriousness of the situation suddenly impressed on them. The officer swallowed again. There was a trapped look in his eye. Sardec gave a small cold smile of triumph.
"Or are you afraid?" he repeated.
The officer shook his head. There was a look of panic in his eyes. He was wondering how this situation had sprung up on him so quickly. Sardec felt the same way, but the whirlwind of combat had left him experienced in dealing with that sensation. "Perhaps you would like to apologise to my companion," Sardec suggested, partially to humiliate his foe, partially to give him a way out.
"I will not apologise to a monkey," the officer blurted. Sardec slapped him. It was not a powerful blow, which made it all the more insulting. The mark of his hand blotched the other Terrarch's cheek. There was only one way that stain could be wiped off with honour.
"My name is Lieutenant Deakan," said the officer. "I shall have my seconds call on you to fix a place and time. Given your invalidity the sword would be a dishonourable choice, so I choose pistols."
"That will be most satisfactory," said Sardec.
"No," murmured Rena. Sardec took her by the arm and sauntered away, feigning a casualness he was far from feeling. Behind him, he could hear Deakan's brother officers begin babbling advice and warnings. He felt a tug on his sleeve and turned to see the officer who had started the whole thing.
Sardec raised an eyebrow. "Do you wish to fight too, sir? If so I will deal with you after I have settled things with your companion."
The officer looked shame-faced. "This is wrong, Lieutenant Sardec. Our behaviour was insulting to both you and your companion. I hope you will accept my apologies and forget about this matter."
"If Lieutenant Deakan feels the same way, he can come and apologise himself."
"He does not wish to, sir, but I do from the bottom of my heart. Please do not let this matter get out of hand."
"He's right, my lord," said Rena. The other officer gave her an angry glance; he did not like having her plead his case for him. Sardec wanted to tell her that he was doing this for her, but he realized that was a lie. He was doing it for himself, to salvage his own pride and to redeem himself from the fear he felt about the bite he had taken.
"The matter got out of hand when you started insulting my companion. I repeat if your friend apologizes to her the matter can be forgotten."
"He cannot apologize to a human whor…" The officer bit of his words just in time. Drunk though he was he knew how close he had come to making matters infinitely worse. "You know that." he added weakly.
Sardec shrugged. "Then the matter stands."
Anger contorted the fellow's face. "You have placed Deakan in an intolerable position, sir. If he kills you, he has murdered a cripple. If you kill him, he is dead."
"Deakan placed himself in this position. He knows how to extract himself from it. I will ignore your own words, sir, since you are obviously distraught. I bid you good day."
Arm in arm with Rena he walked off down the street. Despite himself he felt a small satisfaction at leaving the other Terrarch speechless.
Sardec awoke before dawn. The chamber was cold and it was difficult to get out of bed. His dreams had been troubled affairs, full of vivid images of the spidery servants of Ulan Ultar and the hidden tunnels beneath Achenar where he had lost his hand.
For a moment, he was disoriented, not quite sure where he was. He had a nagging sense that something was wrong. Rena stirred beside him, her warm weight pressing against his side. She murmured something in her sleep, and he felt a momentary surge of affection for her. Then, suddenly, stunningly, it came to him: today was the day he was due to fight a duel with Lieutenant Deakan. Within a few hours he might be dead. The enormity of it shook him. From out of nowhere, in what should have been a peaceful time, death had reached out with his bony claws.
He sighed and swung his long legs out of the bed. His feet touched the wooden floor and he worried for a moment that he would get a splinter in his foot. He smiled nervously at the ludicrousness of the thought. In the not too distant future a bullet might come crashing through his brain and here he was worried about the prospect of splinters. How strangely the mind worked. He drew on his leggings clumsily and scratched at the scab on the back of his hand.
If a bullet found him today, it might prove a mercy. At least he would die while he was still himself. The conviction that the ghoul disease was destined to take him had settled in his mind, and he did not seem able to shake it. It had all the inevitability of the sunset. He wondered if such pessimism was a symptom that his mind had started to go, or whether it was just because he was tired and hungry.
He glanced out the window. The first faint glimmerings of light had just appeared in the autumn sky. The streets had a ghostly twilit quality that gave the shuffling vendors an unreal quality. Already the first of the street dwellers were stirring, picking among the nightsoil and the garbage, searching for something, anything that would help them survive another day.
How many times had he looked out of windows like this and never even noticed such people, Sardec wondered? They had always just been part of the scenery, animated bits of landscape that no more impinged upon his life than the signs for cheap habiliments that hung above their heads. Now he found himself wondering what it would be like to be one of them, to live their lives, to eke out their fragile existence, to never have to worry about honour, or place or preferment.
He turned and looked at Rena. A street like that was the place she had come from. Something told him that life was no less complex down there, merely harder, and it struck him forcibly and not for the first time just how privileged his life had really been. He had been born wealthy into one of the highest families in the land. His whole life until Achenar had been one of ease.
He concentrated on the girl as he continued to dress. How lovely she looked as she lay there, her hair a glossy raven's wing against the coverlets. He wondered at the way she moved him, in a way that none of his other lovers ever had, though they had been Terrarchs and closer by far to his station. Why was that? Had she uncovered some deep-seated flaw in his nature, or was it something else, a strength he had not known he had possessed? Perhaps a part of it was simple egotism. He was rebelling against his heritage, showing he was different from all the other Terrarchs. There was something about that which appealed to him, even as he knew how ludicrous it was. He was far from the only officer in the Talorean army who had a human mistress. It was likely that he was not the only one who cared for her either.
She was awake and looking at him, had been all the time. "Good morning," he said softly and smiled. She did not smile back. She looked appalled and saddened.
"Are you really going to do this thing?" she asked.
"I don't have any choice."
"Yes, you do. You can simply not show up."
"And I would be the laughing stock of the army."
"It's better than being dead," she said. The easy stock response came to his lips. Perhaps for you, he was supposed to say, but I am a Terrarch and an officer. It was the sort of thing that heroes in plays always said.
"Perhaps," he said, thinking of his father, dying slowly of a terrible wasting disease, thinking of the disease that might even now be eating away at his own brain. "Perhaps it depends on how you die."
She just looked at him and shook her head. There were many things he wanted to tell her then, to explain how he felt about her, to tell her not to be afraid, to tell her that he was not afraid, in spite of everything. At that moment there came a knock on the door, as loud as a thunderclap in the silence of the morning.
"Lieutenant Sardec, we must be on our way to the field of honour." The voice belonged to Lieutenant Jazeray, his second, but it might as well have been the voice of doom. As he left he thought he heard her crying.
Jazeray looked sombre as the coach rumbled through the quiet streets. Sardec was glad to be left alone with his thoughts. The initial feeling of dread had lifted, leaving him afloat on a fragile calm. He found his thoughts were very clear and he was filled with a certain nostalgia. He glanced out the window, drinking in the street scene, the figures moving through the arcades, the beggars with their bowls and crutches, the pie-sellers with their wares displayed on trays that hung from their neck. Strangely, he felt a sudden desire for one of the pigeon pies. He quashed it.
His thoughts drifted back to last night. His love-making with Rena had been feverish, and reached a height of passion he has never experienced before, an ecstasy so intense it had blazed through him like a lightning strike. He has always felt a passion for her more intense than for any other woman he had slept with, and this had felt like the culmination of that intense desire. It made fighting this duel almost worth it.
"By the Light, you look very cheerful for a Terrarch going to face death," said Jazeray. There was a combination of admiration and chagrin in his voice. Sardec realised that he was smiling at the memory of last night, and wiped it away. Soon, he thought, he would need to have all his wits about him. Most likely he would die soon. For all his practise, he was an indifferent shot with his left hand.
"Is Deakan any good with a pistol?" Sardec asked.
"Perhaps that's a question you should have asked before you challenged him to a duel."
"Indeed. It's a pity you were not there to advise me at the time. I might have done so."
Jazeray’s smile was cold but a hint of genuine humour crinkled the corner of his eyes. Sardec felt a feeling of comradeship for him at that moment, the like of which he had never felt before. They had never really been close — if truth be told Sardec had never really been all that close to any of his fellow officers. Jazeray had agreed to be his second because the honour of the regiment demanded it. At this moment Sardec was glad he was there. Jazeray’s smile faded.
"By all accounts he's an excellent shot. Are you so determined on suicide? There are easier ways. I can recommend a particularly good poison — Saladan roach venom — it induces ecstasy that lasts for hours before death."
"One of my men, the northern barbarian, always claims he knows a street girl in Harven that can do the same."
"Perhaps you should seek her out."
"Are you trying to talk me out of this?"
"It's one of my duties as a second."
"You are performing it admirably so far. Keep up the good work."
"You could simply apologise to Deakan for slapping him."
Jazeray contemplated this for a moment. "I would probably have punched him."
"Then you can see the way the thing goes."
There was silence for a moment. Jazeray paused, almost embarrassed. "By the balls of the Shadow Princes, Sardec, you are a cool one. Whatever happens this morning, the regiment will be proud of you. I can tell you that."
The silence fell again, and in it, Sardec considered his fellow officer's question. Was he determined on suicide? Perhaps he was. Perhaps he found this death preferable to the ghoul disease. Perhaps it was something else, something that had lurked in his temperament since he was born, and had waited for this moment to emerge. Or perhaps he really was just defending his honour and Rena's. A few month's ago he would have laughed if anyone had told him that he would die to defend the honour of a human camp follower. Now he could laugh for a different reason.
He glanced out the window again. They had left the city behind and were out among the fields. Quite recently men had camped here, and lived and died here during the siege. Before this morning was much older, more blood would fertilise the grass, most likely his own.
The fields reminded him a little of his father's estate. They had the same flatness broken by shade trees. He remembered running across those fields as a boy, chasing butterflies, swimming in rivers, learning to ride a destrier. His memories of that time all seemed bathed in golden sunlight, just as his memories of the old winters were always full of snow. He knew there must have been grey days, and rainy days, and days of mud and slush but he was hard pressed to remember them now.
The road passed through a wood, trees all clad in autumn browns and reds that made him think of sitting in his father's house beside a roaring fire. He remembered lessons with his sisters, and celebrations of the Holy Days, dressing up in masks at Solace, lighting candles at the altars for Midwinter. He remembered reading the books in his mother's library, being baffled by the diagrams and odd notations in the grimoires. His sisters always had more of a gift for magic than he had. It came to him now that really he should have spent last night writing to his sisters and to his father telling them of his feelings for them, perhaps he should even have written to his mother. Too late now for that, of course. Much too late.
The coach rolled to a stop where the road passed through a clearing. They had arrived.
Deakan and his seconds were already there. They stood together under a tree. They all seemed rather young and innocent. Sardec felt almost sorry for them, although he was probably younger than they. With them were two people he did not recognise, one of them a human, the other a Terrarch in a long frock coat. The human carried a large black case that most likely contained the pistols.
He stepped out of the coach and tugged his jacket tight. It was a chilly morning. Mist had brought moisture to the air. His breath clouded in front of him although the sun was fully risen. Sardec wondered how many more minutes of life he had left. Probably not many. He took a deep breath, enjoying the loamy freshness of the air, so clear and clean after the pollution of the city. He noticed that dew clung to the long grass. He smiled at Jazeray and nodded to those who waited. He was surprised by the calmness he projected. He felt more like an actor in a play than someone who was about to put his life on the line. He wondered if Deakan felt the same way.
As he came closer, he realised that the answer was most probably no. His opponent looked pale, and there was a darkness under his eyes as if he had not slept. He and his companions smelled of liquor. Perhaps they had been up all night boozing. It was one way that some people kept their courage up. They did not look too pleased to see him. He smiled at them.
"Good morning," he said. No one responded.
The tall Terrarch standing with the humans came forward. Sardec knew him now. It was the surgeon. He was the last person Sardec had expected to see here but he supposed it made sense to have someone with his skills on hand. The sight of him brought back thoughts of the ghoul bite and a coldness deeper than that of the chill morning air settled on Sardec's heart. The surgeon gestured to Sardec and Deakan who approached.
He placed a gloved hand on each of their shoulder's and said, "You have been called today to the field of honour because you each feel you have a grievance against the other. I urge you, before the sight of God, to put your quarrels aside and make peace. No blood need be spilled today. You both may retire with honour."
It was not true of course. Both of them would retire as laughing stocks in the eyes of their fellow Terrarchs, but the form of words had to be fulfilled.
"Lieutenant Sardec struck me. No apology he could make would make any difference to the slight nor excuse his boorish conduct." Sardec noticed a slight stammer in Deakan's voice. Was the other officer nervous? Perhaps. His breath certainly reeked of wine. He refused to meet Sardec's eye. The surgeon turned his gaze on Sardec.
"And you, sir?"
"I believe that honour forbids me from withdrawing."
"Then we must proceed to the drawing of blood. I believe the chosen weapons were pistols."
Sardec and Deakan nodded. "Bulger, if you please," said the surgeon.
Stone-faced as an undertaker, the human opened the black wooden box. Within were two pistols. They were beautiful pieces, with gold-embossed filigree. They smelled of oil and old wood. "Each of you may choose a weapon. Lieutenant Sardec you may choose first. Both of you may prime your weapon with powder and wad. I will pour the measure of powder from the same bag. In light of Lieutenant Sardec's injury, I trust no one will object to his second priming the weapon."
Deakan shook his head. "Does that mean you have no objections, sir?" the surgeon asked.
"No objections," said Deakan. It seemed to take him a little time to get the words out. His hands shook when he accepted the pistol. Sardec was pleased that his own did not although he could hardly slight his foe for that. It was one thing to draw a weapon in battle with the fury of combat surrounding you. This readying weapons in the early morning, alone, with a single opponent who you must look in the eye, and talk to before the event, was something else entirely. Sardec was surprised how calmly he was taking everything.
Jazeray took the pistol and the measure of powder the surgeon had poured into a bag. He checked the action of the weapon carefully and then primed it. He took a long time about the procedure, apparently all too aware that a fellow officer's life lay in his hands. Briefly Sardec wondered if he had done anything recently to offend Jazeray, decided that he had not, and that he could trust him. That thought, too, brought a smile to his face. He noticed that Deakan was staring at him, as if astonished by his calmness. He had spilled a little powder when readying his weapon, and had to ask for more, if Sardec did not object.
"No objection at all," said Sardec pleasantly. He was starting to enjoy himself in a strange way. His opponent's obvious nervousness would perhaps make up for his own left-handed shooting. Another glance at the surgeon reminded him of the ghoul disease and that, perhaps Deakan would be doing him a favour if he killed him.
Eventually the preparations were complete. The surgeon said; "Sirs, you will both stand back to back and give myself and your seconds time to withdraw. When I say proceed, you will take ten steps turn and fire. If you understand and agree, say aye."
"Aye," said Sardec.
"A…aye," said Deakan.
Sardec watched as the surgeon and his companions withdrew. They all looked more nervous than he felt. He took one last look at their faces and the trees, glanced up at the sky, thought of Rena and then waited, feeling the deadly weight of the gun in his left hand.
He could hear Deakan breathing heavily behind him. A faint flicker of pain passed through the phantom of his right hand, as it sometimes did after moments of stress, then he felt a sense of total freedom and lightness such as he had never felt before. In a few heartbeats, everything here would be decided one way or another.
"Proceed," said the surgeon. Sardec put one foot in front of the other. He was aware of every faint shift in the tension of his leg muscles. One, he counted to himself.
He took another pace and then another. What if Deakan turned and fired early? The muscles of his back tensed as if expecting a bullet to come crashing into them any moment. He kept walking, five steps, six. In his mind's eye a picture of Deakan turning and firing emerged. He pushed it aside. He would do this properly or die in the attempt. Seven, eight, nine, ten. He swung and saw that Deakan had already turned. His pistol was raised. Sardec knew in that moment he was going to die. The game was up. He smiled.
Deakan raised his pistol. His hand shook perceptibly as he did so. Sardec did not bother to raise his own. He watched disinterestedly as his foe, straightened his arm and pulled the trigger. A cloud of smoke. A roar like thunder, too loud in the early morning. Pain seared through Sardec's right arm. He waited for blackness to take him. It did not. He looked down and saw that his sleeve was torn and his right bicep was bleeding. A flesh wound he thought.
Deakan stared at him, his face a study in horror and despair. The situation of a few moments ago was reversed. Sardec briefly considered discharging his pistol into the air, of saying blood had been drawn and honour satisfied. Anger grabbed his heart then, and he shook his head. This offal had tried to kill him, and would have done so, if his aim had not been so bad. Slowly and very carefully Sardec raised his pistol, aiming it right between the eyes that held his gaze. He squeezed the trigger. A flower of blood bloomed on Deakan's forehead, and he fell backwards, dead.
Rik strode into Asea’s chamber. “You wanted to see me?”
The sorceress looked up from the manuscript she was writing. “We have another invitation this evening. Lord Elakar is throwing a ball.” Asea looked strangely pleased.
“It’s for the new Sardean Ambassador. Everyone will be there.”
“We are entertaining Ambassadors from the Dark Empire?”
“Diplomacy goes on even when we are at war, Rik.”
“So I am starting to notice.”
“Channels of communication must be kept open. It’s only civilised.”
Rik made a face. “How are your lessons going with Karim?”
“He has been lecturing me about using your opponent’s strength against him. He says that most people facing me with a blade will be overconfident, and that I can use that to my advantage.” Rik had a feeling that Asea knew what Karim had told him already. She was merely testing him.
“The same is true in many things, Rik. You would do well to remember that.”
“I will do my best.”
“I have sent for a tailor,” she said. “He shall see you are suitably dressed for tonight’s gala.”
“I already have more clothes than I have ever had in my life.”
“You can never have too many clothes, Rik. That’s one of the first laws of being an Aristal.”
“I suppose we must look our best for our enemies.”
“Indeed we must.” She smiled enigmatically again. What was going on here, he wondered? What did she know that he did not? He knew better than to ask.
Sweet music drifted from the chamber, echoing under the huge vaulted ceiling and swirling through the long tiled corridors. Uniformed officers, civil servants in their gold-braided court best and women in long evening gowns drifted under the sorcerous chandeliers as if propelled by the sounds. Lord Elakar had selected a particularly nice mansion for himself — just behind the parliament building. The previous occupiers were in Sardea, along with Prince Khaldarus. Apparently the redistribution of property had already begun.
The General sat apart from his guests and received them from a throne that was worthy of a king. It was as if he, and not Kathea, was soon to be crowned ruler of Kharadrea. Perhaps he believed in a way that he was. If he knew he was giving offence to the locals, he did not seem aware of the fact.
Rik moved through the crowd, listening to the buzz of conversation.
“It’s amazing that they have the gall to come here,” said one tall Terrarch beauty to her officer companion. "After supporting the enemies of the Queen.”
“Hush,” said her companion, an officer in the uniform of one of the Kharadrean Guard regiments. “They are entitled to be here.” He noticed Rik listening and added. “Even if they are the enemy.”
The objects of all the attention moved across the floor. One was a tall dark Terrarch, garbed in a dark blue court uniform and high leather boots. He was possessed of both languid beauty and aristocratic hauteur. He smiled pleasantly as if he was either unaware or did not care about all the eyes upon them.
The female Terrarch beside him looked surprisingly young. She did not have the polished ageless gleam of most of their women. Her smile had dimples. Her eyes were wide. Her hair was golden and did not look dyed. Her white dress braided with gold made her look spectacular and innocent, an impression Rik knew was all too deceptive. The last time he had seen Tamara she had been dressed as a man and hanging out in a low dive in the town of Morven. He suspected that she had tried and very nearly succeeded at having him assassinated by a near unstoppable undead monster. He was not sure what her reason had been for that, but he could easily find it in himself to resent it.
“What is the governor thinking?” asked another Terrarch woman, her hair silver, her clothing in the same style as some pictures Rik had seen that he knew to be over five centuries old.
“They came with credentials from the Queen Empress,” said a Terrarch male, garbed in the court uniform of the same generation. “They are her Ambassadors. Or so I heard.”
“Spies more like,” said the woman, but she sounded thoughtful. Like every Terrarch with any involvement in politics, which was to say all of them, she obviously knew the importance of keeping channels open.
“I think it’s rather pleasant that we still observe the old diplomatic protocols and courtesies. Too many of the younger generation have forgotten them in this damn civil war.”
“I suppose she is the daughter of Lord Malkior. He was a most charming gentleman. I remember him well from the Old Queen’s court. It’s a pity that time ever ended.”
To listen to her, you would never have thought that the time had ended with the Old Queen’s assassination and a civil war that had split the Terrarch Imperium. They were still trying to unravel the consequences of those events today. Most people saw the present war as a simple continuation of the Schism.
He made his way back over to Asea. She was smiling. She knew as well as he did that this pair had tried and almost succeeded in having them both killed by sorcery of the foulest sort, and yet she looked only mildly amused by the sight of them.
“I trust you have noticed who just entered,” she said. Her voice too was cool and amused. “Our old friends, the Lord Jaderac and the Lady Tamara.” As ever Rik wondered just how much Asea knew about him and Tamara. Tamara had offered him a great deal to kill Asea, which was a fact he had never yet reported to his patron.
“I don’t see how I could have failed to. Everyone is talking about them.”
“They do seem to have caused quite a stir.”
“Why have they not been arrested? A lot of people here seem to think it a good idea.”
“Lord Jaderac is the emissary of the Queen Empress of Sardea, and one of her favoured lovers. Tamara is the daughter of her former Chancellor. You don’t lock up people like that, Rik. You entertain them.”
“They would make very good hostages.”
“I suspect the Queen Empress is aware of that, and so is Tamara’s father. However they are here under diplomatic protection. Nothing untoward will happen to them.”
“Accidents happen.” She looked at him and smiled again.
“I am afraid your bad blood is showing, Rik.”
“I find it very difficult to forgive people who have tried to kill me.”
“I fear it's something you had best get used to. Oh look, I see Lord and Lady Sardontine. They are coming this way. She seems pleased to see you.”
Rik bowed to the couple as they approached. Moments later, the Lord was deeply engaged in conversation with Asea and he found himself circulating with his wife.
Much to his surprise Rik found himself face to face with Tamara. As he mingled with the crowd Lady Sardontine brought her over to introduce them. Tamara smiled as if they had never met before.
“I have heard a great deal about your heroism,” she said, the very picture of empty-headed innocence. “And your triumph over the demons unleashed by that wicked old sorcerer Lord Ilmarec. You must tell me about it.”
“Our young hero is very modest about such things,” said Lady Sardontine, placing a proprietorial hand on Rik’s arm. Tamara’s smile widened a fraction when she noticed that.
“I have a lot to be modest about,” said Rik. Both of them laughed as if they did not really agree with that statement.
“I confess I was amazed at the way you destroyed the Tower,” said Tamara. “I have never quite seen anything like it. It was an awesome sight — the way it lifted on a column of fire and disappeared into the storm clouds.”
Lady Sardontine gaped at her. “You were there?”
“Lord Jaderac and I were paying our respects to Lord Ilmarec at the Serpent Tower only a few hours before it happened.”
Lord Jaderac and Tamara had been trying to persuade the ancient sorcerer to throw in his lot with the Dark Empress.
“You were greatly missed when Lord Azaar’s army marched into Morven,” said Rik maliciously.
“Lord Jaderac had urgent business elsewhere. I would have been delighted to stay and pay my respects to Lord Azaar, but of course, I had to go with his Lordship. He commanded our bodyguard, after all, and he’s so very…well…commanding.”
There was a twinkle in Tamara’s eye. She was mocking him and Lord Jaderac and letting him know it. Lady Sardontine must have noticed it. Her face was a frozen mask.
“There was a lot of impressive sorcery at that time,” he said, thinking of the Nerghul that had almost killed him. “We must talk about that too.”
“I don’t know a great deal about such things. Magic is much more Lord Jaderac’s province than my own. I am sure he would be delighted to talk to you about it.”
Rik had seen her work sorcery with his own eyes. He decided not to mention this for the time being.
“I would much rather talk about less disturbing things like that beautiful new uniform you are wearing. Was it a gift from Lady Asea?”
What else could it be? He did not have a great deal of money of his own. “Indeed,” he said. Tamara giggled. “She is very generous. You look very handsome in it.”
The conjunction of the two statements held an obvious implication, but the way she said it made the connection seem almost accidental. Lady Sardontine looked at her sharply, suspecting there was more to Tamara than met the eye, then she glanced aside. Her husband was beckoning to her from across the room. “If you will excuse me for a moment,” she said, and departed, leaving Rik confronting Tamara.
“Believe it or not, I am actually glad to see you are still alive,” she said. Her expression was still vacuous for the benefit of those watching them, but her tone of voice was not.
“I do find that a little hard to believe,” he said. She took no offence but snapped open her fan and covered her dimpled smile with it.
“How did you get out of the Tower? I am genuinely interested.”
“I flew,” he said.
“You seem to be doing a lot of that. I heard about your trip in the balloon. Whatever will you be doing next?” she asked.
“I don’t know. What brings you to this place?”
“Lord Jaderac is Her Majesty’s emissary. I am here to assist him in any way I can. My position is somewhat secretarial, don’t you know.”
“I doubt that.”
“You are just full of doubts this evening, Sir Rik.”
“Under the circumstances can you blame me?”
“Not in the slightest.” Rik found himself answering her smile with one of his own. The problem with Tamara was that whatever she had done, he liked her. That was a dangerous feeling.
“Are you still dressing up and hanging around in low taverns?”
“That’s a very ungallant thing for you to mention at a gathering like this.”
“I am a very ungallant man,” he said.
“I suppose you are. I find that an attractive quality. Every male at court needs to present himself as the soul of honour. It can be very tedious.”
The music started again. “Shall we dance?” she asked.
“Why not,” he said. He took her by the hand and led her out onto the floor.
Lieutenant Sardec moved walked over to Lady Asea. He was in no mood for dancing and he had no desire to join in the gossip of his fellow officers. He did not know what drew him to Asea — he had always found her very intimidating — but they had shared a strange intimacy ever since that night in Morven when they had watched the Serpent Tower vanish. Also he thought she might want to talk about the new arrivals. Perhaps she could tell him something about the ghoul disease, although it seemed a little less worrying now. The surgeon had checked him again, and decided that there was almost no chance of him having it. It was the almost that made Sardec nervous.
He saw that Asea was staring out onto the dance floor watching her protege and Lady Tamara dance. They were an interesting looking couple and they danced very well. Someone had given the half-breed excellent training in the courtly skills but he supposed that was only to be expected from Lady Asea.
“Good evening, Lieutenant,” she said as he took his place beside her. She had not looked in his direction. It was a sorcerer’s trick she had.
“Good evening, Milady.”
“I trust you have not come to ask for a dance.”
“I find it difficult with this hook, Milady. It keeps getting caught in the sleeves of dresses.” She looked at him sidelong.
“I am sorry, Lieutenant, that was tactless of me.”
“No. It was tactless of me.”
“Was there something you wanted to talk about?”
“I see you are looking at Lady Tamara and your companion.”
“That’s very observant of you.”
Was she jealous? Sardec wondered. It did not seem very likely that this potent ancient would be subject to such emotions. He supposed it was always possible. There was a certain intensity in her gaze as she looked at the couple. The force of it made him look more closely as well. They were a striking duo. There was no way you could spot any of the human blood in the half-breed. He looked every inch the Terrarch — quite as much as Lady Tamara who was the daughter of one of the highest nobles of the oldest bloodlines. Indeed when you looked at them, they looked quite similar. Their faces were the same shape, their cheekbones the same size. They were both equally striking.
“You are quite correct,” she said thoughtfully, and Sardec realised he had been speaking his thoughts out loud. “There is a strange similarity between them.”
Her tone was more thoughtful than ever. Definitely jealous, Sardec thought, surprised.
“I hear you have been fighting duels, Lieutenant.”
“Word certainly spreads fast.”
“This one has caused quite a scandal. Rumour has it a human lady was the cause of the affair.” Sardec did not blush. He was proud of that.
“Be careful, Lieutenant, such a thing will make you many enemies.”
“I mean no offence, Lady Asea, but my life is my own to live.”
“That it is. I rather admire you for it.”
Sardec sensed that for reasons of her own, Asea wanted to be his friend. Under the present circumstances he was glad someone did. His reception at the regiment had held an odd mixture of respect, admiration and contempt. His fellow officers seemed to feel that at the same time as he was upholding the honour of the regiment by winning his duel, he was letting them down by the cause of it. It was one thing to have a human mistress. It was another to flaunt the fact so openly.
He told himself that he did not care, but the sad truth was that he was affected by it. How many of the people around him knew about the business, he wondered, and how many of them despised him for it. Asea smiled, as if she knew what he was thinking. It was very disconcerting.
Rik found himself holding Tamara close as the dance moved from the handholding part of the sequence to something more intimate. His hand was on her back. Hers rested on his shoulder. She was exceptionally light on her feet. She kept smiling as they moved around and round, orbiting other dancers on the floor.
“You dance well,” she said.
“So do you.”
“Someone has been teaching you the graces.”
“A lot of people have.”
“You have become quite an important person you know.”
“I doubt that.”
“You are using the doubt word again.”
“I thought I was the one who was supposed to flatter you.”
“This is not flattery, Rik, simply a statement of fact. Powerful people have been impressed by you. My father for one.”
“You have spoken to him?”
“I did not waste the summer campaigning with the army if that is what you mean. I suspect I would have found it very dreary.”
“What did you do?”
“I travelled to Harven. I talked with my father. I told him about your exploits.”
“Did you tell him about sending your pet undead monster after me?”
“I did.” He was surprised. He had expected her to deny that.
“What did he say?”
“You control your anger very well.”
“Your father is a perceptive man.”
“He did not say that, as you well know, I was talking to you.”
“You sense that I am angry. That’s very perceptive.”
“The Nerghul was not aimed at you, Rik. It was aimed at Asea.”
“I just happened to be in the way.”
“Something like that.” His arm tightened around her. He half-wished it was his hand on her throat.
“You will forgive me if I take that personally,” he said.
“I would not expect anything else. You must realise that there is a war on. Your patron is a very dangerous woman.”
“I know — she practises the evil arts of black sorcery,” said Rik. “So unlike your friend Lord Jaderac. And yourself.”
“I have told you this before, Rik. You have no idea who you are dealing with. Asea is ancient and evil and powerful beyond belief. She killed the Old Queen. She has killed many others. There is no limit to her ambition.”
“Again, so unlike all the other Terrarchs.”
“You are a Terrarch, Rik.”
“Then I know whereof I speak.” He was surprised by the intensity of the anger in him. He had always been angry at the world. Perhaps Tamara was simply providing a focus for it.
“I can see that you do.” The music ended and they paused to applaud the orchestra. Rik escorted Tamara from the floor. There were others waiting to dance with her. Enemy or no, she was going to very popular with the local officers. Perhaps even because she was the enemy, he thought cynically.
As he came off the floor, he noticed that both Asea and Lieutenant Sardec were staring at them. There was something odd about the way they were looking.
“There are things we must talk about,” said Tamara as he bowed to her and she curtsied to him.
“Write me a letter,” said Rik.
“I trust you had an interesting evening, Rik,” said Asea. She looked out of the carriage window and into the street. Behind them the glittering lights of Elakar’s Palace were starting to dim and go out as the inhabitants made their way to bed.
“Very interesting, thank you.”
“You had a lively chat with Lady Tamara?”
“About the Serpent Tower. About Jaderac. About her father.”
“What did she say about her father?”
“He is in Harven?”
“What is he doing there?”
“She did not say — is it of interest?”
“I would say so, Rik. Malkior is a very influential Terrarch, a former Chancellor of Sardea. If he is in the Great Port now, it is for a reason and one to do with the war.”
“I am sorry I did not question her more closely then. I was busy trying to stop myself from strangling her in full view of Kharadrea’s aristocracy.”
“There are better places to commit murder,” said Asea, her voice was very soft. Rik looked sharply at her, remembering Tamara’s words. He heard the sound of hooves behind them. A soldier came alongside and tapped on the window.
“Lady Asea, Captain Quinal of the Intelligence Corps asks if you could please accompany me to the Palace,” the rider said. His voice was loud and frightened. “It is most urgent. The governor has been slain.”
Lord Elakar’s body lay sprawled on the vast four-poster bed. A dagger protruded right up to the hilt from the heart. Blood stained his nightclothes and the sheets. Someone had written Death to the Invaders on the wall using some of it.
“He did not have a very good end to his evening,” said Rik. As soon as she had seen the room, Asea sealed the doors and performed a number of arcane rituals in it. Rik could sense their power, but he had no understanding of what she had done. When they were finished, they went to the chamber where Quinal was holding the servants. It was a bare room with a few wooden chairs. Soldiers in the uniform of the Queen’s Own Cavalry, Lord Elakar’s regiment, guarded the door.
“Who saw him last?” Asea asked as soon as she walked in.
“Answer her Ladyship,” said Captain Quinal. He was a rather sinister looking Terrarch with glints of grey in his hair. According to Asea he was very high up in Intelligence.
“Manfred — his body servant, Milady,” said a tall, thin spare-looking human male, doubtless the chief butler. He gestured to a frightened looking middle-aged man with a well-trimmed goatee beard. Manfred was under no illusions as to where suspicion was likely to fall for this killing.
“I would appreciate it if the rest of you would leave,” Asea said. Manfred looked as if he was going to faint. He obviously had no desire to be left alone in a room with this infamous sorceress, her bodyguards and the terrifying Captain Quinal.
“Please be seated,” she said, indicating to Manfred that he should take one of the chairs.
“I could never do that, your Ladyship. Not while you are standing.”
“I insist, Manfred. This is not a matter of good manners. It is a command.” Manfred gulped and sat down. Asea strode over to him and removed one of her Elder Signs. She held it on a chain, so that it swung in front of the servant’s eyes. As it swung back and forth she murmured the words of a spell. Rik was surprised to feel the hairs prickle on the back of his neck. He sensed the flow of energy within the room, and saw a faint nimbus of magical energy gather around the sign.
Manfred’s eyes locked on the swinging symbol. The veins stood out on his forehead. He swallowed again and again as if his mouth were filling up with saliva. His eyes glazed over. After a minute or so, Asea seemed satisfied. She stopped her chanting.
“Did you kill Lord Elakar?” she asked. Manfred shook his head.
“Please speak aloud when you answer my questions,” she said.
“No, Milady. I did not kill him.”
Her voice was soothing. “I thought as much, but it’s the obvious question to ask. Did you see who killed him?”
“No, Milady. I did not.”
“Did you have anything to do with his murder? Did you help his killers in any way?”
“Certainly not, Milady. Why would I do that? Lord Elakar was the best master a man ever had.”
“When did you last see him alive?” she asked.
“When I bade him good night after helping him disrobe.”
“Did he do anything unusual or abnormal?”
“No, Milady. He had a last glass of wine and went to bed, as he always did.”
“Did he say anything unusual?”
“Do you know of anybody who would have wanted him killed?”
“Only those Kharadrean scum as did it.”
“What makes you say that?”
“They hate us, Milady. They don’t want us here. You should hear what some of them say to cook when she's out buying stores.”
“Is that all?”
“There’s the dagger, Milady, and the message on the wall.”
“Anyone can write a message,” said Asea.
“In blood, Milady? What sort of person would do that?” The servant sounded genuinely shocked. Rik was not. He had seen far worse things in his time.
“You will talk of this matter to no one save myself, Captain Quinal, Lord Azaar or our authorised representatives,” said Asea. She muttered a word of command, and Manfred stirred like a man coming suddenly awake.
“You may go, Manfred,” Asea said. The servant departed. Asea slumped down in the chair and gestured at Quinal.
The rest of the servants were called. The inquisition continued.
Asea looked at Quinal as they talked to the last of the guards who had been on duty the previous evening. “Do you have any more questions, Captain?” she asked. “If so, please ask them quickly; using such magic is quite fatiguing.”
“I can’t think of any, Milady.”
“The wards are all in place. Nothing disturbed them,” she said. “It was not a summoning that did this.”
“It is quite baffling,” said Quinal. “No one saw anything. No wards are disturbed. No summonings were performed in the night, and yet General Elakar is dead with a Kharadrean dagger in his breast.”
“You think the dagger is significant, Captain?”
“It bears a dragon rampant, the sign of the Brotherhood of Kharadrean Patriots. Who are exactly the sort of league you would expect from their name.”
“Are they connected with any wizards?”
“You never know with the Brotherhoods, Milady. It’s the usual sort of group with all the trappings. Dressing up in cowled robes. Code names. All of the old secret society marks. You suspect a wizard is involved?”
“The killing was done without disturbing the wards. No one seems to have seen the killer. It all smacks of magic, Captain.”
“With all respect, warding spells have been known to fail, Milady. Sometimes they are even miscast.”
“I am aware of that. These ones seem to be functioning perfectly.”
“As you are no doubt aware, Milady, sometimes wards have flaws which can be exploited.”
Asea nodded. “You are quite correct, Captain, and I am very tired. Is there anything else you wish of me?”
“The servants will not talk?”
“Nor the guards I have spoken to, Captain. They are placed under a deep compulsion. It would take a mage of considerable skill to undo it.”
“Then I thank you for your help, Milady. I will continue with my investigation.”
“It’s bad, isn’t it?” said Rik, once they were back inside the coach, and clattering over the cobbled streets. He was a little unsettled. Only a few hours ago, Lord Elakar had been alive, sitting in state in his Palace, supervising the ball. Rik had not known him, and had never cared about him one way or another, but it was jarring that he was gone. He had become used to death in his life, but he expected it on the battlefield and in the back alley, not in the palaces of the powerful.
“It’s very bad, Rik,” she said. “And whoever did this knows it. They have killed one of our Generals in his own mansion, and they have left no clues.”
“No clues. Is that possible?”
“You saw me perform the rituals, Rik. I looked for residual auras in the room and on the weapon. There were none. Sorcery was used, of a very powerful type. It would be needed to prevent me from making a connection.”
Glancing out the window, Rik saw that many in the crowd were looking at them with resentment. Their coach bore the marks of foreigners and the mob here was developing a well-honed hatred of foreigners. And it seemed like they were losing their sense of fear.
“It will get worse once word of this gets out. One of our highest has been killed, apparently by one of their Brotherhoods. It will embolden those who resist us and give heart to Kathea’s enemies.”
“You don’t think the Brotherhood did it?” Rik had encountered the secret Brotherhoods, those multiple interlocking conspiracies woven through all the lairs of society, before. One of them had been partially responsible for the terrible events at Deep Achenar.
“They might have, Rik. And they have picked a good time to strike. Winter is coming. Food is short. Resentment is high. Our own men are feeling displaced. This will not help morale.”
She sounded thoughtful and not a little homesick. It was rare to see Asea look vulnerable but she did so now.
“What is it?” he asked.
“It’s starting again, Rik, I can feel it.”
“Inexplicable killings. Unexplainable murders. Untraceable assassins. I have seen this before. On Al’Terra and after the old Queen was killed. It sickens me, and this time I am going to put an end to it.” She sounded very determined. He did not doubt that, if it was possible to find a way to do it, she would then the significance of her words sank in. Untraceable killers.
“I did not do it,” he said. “I was in the Palace.”
Asea looked at him carefully as if measuring his trustworthiness. “I believe you,” she said, but he was not entirely sure that she did.
If it was someone like him there might be some connection to his long lost father, to another Shadowblood. Once again it occurred to Rik that she was using him as a kind of bait, but now it seemed she might be seeking bigger and more dangerous fish. She might be looking for someone who could kill the Lord Governor in his own Palace surrounded by his guards.
Who would that person try for next, he wondered? He had a terrible feeling that he was going to find out.
“Assemble the men, Sergeant,” said Sardec. “It seems we have work to do.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sergeant Hef. If he had any curiosity about the reasons for his commander’s urgency he kept them off his face. He had already seen the messenger arrive and had perhaps even talked to him. Hef strode out of the room, shouting orders to Corporal Toby and the men. Sardec could hear the clatter of boots on stairs and the sounds of weapons being taken from racks. Within five minutes the company was assembled in the courtyard. Sardec stood in front of them.
“A mob is gathering in Old King’s Square. They are protesting about the price of bread. At least they were. Agitators have been speaking to them. Word on the street has it that some patriots killed Lord Elakar last night.”
A murmur went through the ranks. Sardec thought he might as well share the knowledge that had been the talk of the officer’s mess this morning. “It is true. Lord Elakar was killed. The Lady Asea herself is investigating the matter. I have no doubt she will get to the bottom of it.”
That quietened them. Asea had been with the company when the descended into the Elder World hell beneath Deep Achenar. The soldiers of the company had a lot of respect for her. They were frightened of her too although they would never admit it.
“That’s neither here nor there at the moment,” said Sardec. “We have to see that the mob does not get out of hand. There will be no looting. There will be no disturbance of the peace. And there will be absolutely no shooting of civilians, unless I give the order. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” the soldiers chorused.
“Then let’s move out.”
From up ahead Sardec could hear the mutter of the crowd. It was a soft sound in its way, almost like that of the sea. It rose and fell in answer to something. As the troops marched into the square, Sardec saw what it was.
A man clung to the side of a statue of Old King Orodruine. He held onto the king’s arm with one hand while his feet rested on the king’s knee. At this distance, all that Sardec could make out was that he was a man, garbed in the clothes of some street hawker. As the Foragers entered the square and fanned out into a single line, muskets at the ready, the man pointed at them and shouted; “There they are. There are the killers. There are the ones keeping bread from your children’s mouth. There are the ones whose presence defiles the sacred streets of Halim.”
All eyes in the crowd whipped around to look at them. Sardec felt like he was facing some sullen many-headed beast. The same suppressed fury was visible in the eyes of every man, woman and child. He took a deep breath. The crowd outnumbered his company by at least ten to one. Already one or two of them were stooping to pick up cobblestones. He turned to Sergeant Hef. “Form the men up in two ranks. Tell them to be prepared to fire.”
He turned to the crowd and raised his hook. That got their attention. “That will be enough,” he said. “You will disperse and return to your homes. This is an unlawful assembly.”
The crowd simply looked at him, measuring its will against his own. He forced himself to smile coldly and raked his gaze across the front ranks. Not one of them would meet his eyes. He let his glance linger on a few faces, giving the owner’s time to realise that he would remember them. Several of them turned away and began to slouch off.
“You have families. You have businesses. You have children,” Sardec said. “Why risk them?” That message too seemed to get through. He felt as if something had gone out of the many-headed beast, as if it was starting to get its fury under control. He told himself not to get too confident. He had not tamed it yet.
“Why risk it indeed?” sneered the agitator. “Where is the honour of Kharadrea? Where is your courage? Why behave like men when you can behave like whipped dogs and slink away with your tails between your legs.”
The crowd began to mutter among themselves. Some of them were angered by the agitator’s words but whether at him or at the Foragers Sardec could not tell.
“That will be enough, sir,” said Sardec. His parade ground voice carried over the crowd. The situation here was on a bayonet’s edge. He did not want anything to provoke the crowd and the slightest thing might set it off. On the other hand, he could not afford to let the man stir the crowd up.
“What are you going to do about it, Hookhand? Challenge me to a duel?”
Sardec felt his face flush. So even the people here knew about that? The lower orders were discussing his business. He schooled his features into a mask. He was not going to let himself be provoked. Some of those present laughed but oddly enough more of those present seemed to take Sardec’s part. They shook their heads. Women began to pull their children into doorways. Men began to walk away. Sardec wished that he knew what was going on but he had no idea.
After a few minutes only a few die-hard troublemakers and the agitator himself were left in the square. Still Sardec sensed countless eyes watching him from windows and balconies overlooking it. Sardec continued to stare at those who opposed his will. He gave them one last chance.
“You will disperse and go to your homes,” he said. “Or you will be arrested. This is an unlawful assembly.”
Once again, none of them could meet his gaze. The men, hard-looking unshaven types, street bullies and stevedores no doubt, slunk away, leaving only the agitator, still hanging from the statue. “Corporal Toby, arrest that man,” Sardec said.
“With pleasure, sir.”
Sardec turned to Sergeant Hef. “That went better than I expected,” he said. “Although I have no idea why.”
“Begging your pardon, sir,” said the monkey-faced little man, “but it was the duel. Most of the folk around here, and particularly the women, know you fought a Terrarch over a human woman. The crowd was humans, sir. The speaking fellow made a mistake reminding them of what you had done. Begging your pardon, they have more time for you than most Terrarchs, sir.”
Sardec did not know what to say, whether to feel proud or embarrassed. It seemed that he was something of a celebrity here. He told himself that the approval of the crowd should not matter to him, but he found that it did.
“Let’s get that buffoon into irons and the lads back to barracks,” he said
“What’s your name,” Sardec asked the agitator.
“What does it matter, Hookhand?” Sardec has to admit the man was brave. Either that or he was mad. Even in the improvised cell in the billet, he showed no fear and no sign of regret.
“It will be on your gravestone.”
“Then put down a Kharadrean patriot.”
“A Kharadrean idiot, more like,” said Weasel. He and the Barbarian had been assigned to watch the man until the magistrate got there. The Barbarian laughed.
“Laugh all you like, moron,” said the patriot. “Your time is coming.”
With terrifying swiftness and deceptive casualness, the big man batted him right across the room. Sardec glanced at him. “That will be quite enough, soldier,” he said.
“Yes, sir.” He looked at the patriot and smiled broadly. There was no malice there, which somehow made it all the more frightening. “I may not be the brightest of men, but at least I have more sense than to tell the men who captured me that they are idiots.”
“I called you a moron, moron,” said the patriot from his place on the floor. Blood trickled from his mouth. A tooth had come loose and he spat it on the floor.
The Barbarian strolled across, picked him up one-handed, and dusted off the dirt from the man’s shirtfront. Innocent as the gesture was, it conveyed a world of menace. The patriot flinched. The Barbarian set the prisoner back on his seat, wiped his hands and grinned down at him. His gentleness had frightened the prisoner in a way that his brutality had not. His mouth was shut. At least for a moment.
“You are all going to die,” he said. “It does not matter what you do to me.”
“Every man dies,” said Weasel. “It happens to some of us sooner than others.”
“The Brotherhood will make your death painful,” said the man. Sardec began to understand him: the gaunt face, the unblinking stare, the utter certainty. The man was a fanatic of some sort.
“You know about the Brotherhood, do you?” he said softly.
“I know it’s going to kill you all, starting with your leaders, and not excepting the lowliest private soldier.”
The man was dressed like a member of the lower mercantile classes but he did not speak like one, more like a priest.
“Why do they want to kill us?” Sardec asked. “We are here to help your Queen.”
“Help? You are vultures hoping to gorge on the corpse of Kharadrea. You will find that this time you choke.”
Sardec remembered the Prophet Zarahel. He had belonged to a Brotherhood. And the Lady Asea suspected that behind that Brotherhood was the long arm of Sardea. The Dark Empire had been known to support the secret organisations with gold and weapons and sorcery. He wondered if this man was just another deluded pawn of Sardea’s foreign policy. In any case, a swift trial and hanging now seemed ruled out. Perhaps this man knew something about the Brotherhood of Patriots. Given their apparent involvement in Lord Elakar’s assassination, it seemed only right to report the matter to his superiors. He would need to make things clear when the magistrates got here. In the meantime, he might as well ask a few questions himself.
“Regardless of what you think,” Sardec said, his voice gently mocking, “we are here to help Kathea, and we are here to protect your people and country from the Dark Empire.”
The patriot laughed out loud. There was a horrible strained quality to it, and a complete lack of mirth. He was forcing himself to it. “Keep your lies for the fools who believe them. We know your sort. It’s land you want, Kharadrean land.”
“The Dark Empire will make all you humans slaves. Queen Arielle stands for human freedom.”
“Freedom to starve and labour for a pittance.” There was far too much truth in that for Sardec to disagree. He knew that in Talorea things were bad for humans.
“Freedom to own property. To vote in elections. To not be slaves.”
“To be lapdogs of the Terrarch assembly. If you own property. If you are a common man, it’s as bad as ever.”
“Humans in Talorea are better off than ever they were in Kharadrea. And a thousand times better off than they are in Sardea.” Sardec was surprised to find himself on the defensive here. It was not that he disbelieved what he was saying. He just realised that if he were a human it would have sounded inadequate.
“Things will be better here. We will have equality with Terrarchs. We will have a truly democratic government and laws in front of which everyone is equal.”
Both Weasel and the Barbarian sniggered. That seemed to disturb the patriot more than the earlier violence. “Laugh, lapdogs. Laugh while you can. A new age is coming and you will all be swept away.”
Sardec looked at the man, impressed by his seriousness. There was something more here than simple patriotism, a powerful ideal, strong enough to give this man courage in the face of death and torture. If the Sardeans were funding a movement like this, perhaps they had made a huge miscalculation. They were lighting a bonfire that might prove difficult to put out, and one perhaps to set the whole world alight.
Another more frightening thought occurred to him. Perhaps this had nothing to do with the Sardeans. Perhaps it was simply a mark of a new age, a sign of the times. If so his people were in for a rough time.
The door opened. Captain Quinal entered. With him was a Terrarch in the black uniform and silver mask of a military Magister.
“I understand this man is a member of the Brotherhood,” said Quinal. “I have a few questions to ask him. You and your men may go, Lieutenant.”
Sardec gestured for Weasel and the Barbarian to depart as Quinal and his people came into the room. Almost as soon as he left, screams started.
When Quinal was emerged from the room, he did not look pleased. Sardec raised an eyebrow.
“He died without telling us anything.”
“He had some sort of counter-spell?”
Quinal shook his head. “Some training in resisting magic perhaps, and a very strong will. His heart broke before he could tell us anything.”
“We’d better hope not all of his compatriots are made of the same stuff. Or we will have a lot of trouble.”
“Lieutenant, I think we are already in a lot of trouble.”
Sardec did not disagree.
Rik looked up at the painting on the wall of the Palace library. It showed Terrarch knights doing battle with Elder World horrors that looked like monstrous worms. Books lined the walls. Scrolls filled niches. Ladders were needed to reach the upper bookshelves. From the point of view of his former profession the books here were worth a fortune. Someday he hoped he might have a chance to work his way through them.
Asea sat down at a reading desk. He and Karim stood over her. “Watch the door, Karim,” Asea said. “Do not let anyone enter unless they come from Lord Azaar himself.”
“As you wish, mistress,” said Karim. He left the room as quietly as he had entered it. Asea spoke the words of a warding spell. The sounds from outside became flat and distant in the now familiar way.
“I think it’s time that you and I talked about some things, Rik.”
“And what would those things be?”
“I think I have solved a murder.”
“I thought the death of Lord Elakar had you baffled.”
“No. I suspect I know who committed it. I suspect I know who killed your mother. I suspect I know who killed the Old Queen Amarielle.”
Rik looked at her opened mouthed. “You have come to a lot of conclusions very quickly. If you know who killed Lord Elakar, don’t you think you should tell Captain Quinal and the High Command?”
“I don’t. This is a matter I wish to resolve myself.” There was something in the way she said it that chilled Rik’s blood. At that moment, she looked every bit the arch-demon that Tamara claimed she was. He forced his voice to calmness.
“Who killed my mother?”
“The same Terrarch who was responsible for the death of Amarielle.”
“And Lord Elakar?”
“No — that was someone else.”
“Now you have me confused.”
“Lord Malkior was present in Sorrow during the period your mother was killed. He was part of an embassy from Sardea. There were more killings — or should I say ritual sacrifices — during the embassy’s visit. They stopped when it left.”
“Why was nothing done?”
“The Queen and her Parliament did not want war with the Dark Empire just then. What could be done? It might have been coincidence or an attempt to discredit the embassy.”
“They did not want war just then?”
“More preparations were needed. Our army needed to be built up.”
“This war has been a long time coming, Milady.”
“There’s no need to sound so disapproving. Our forces had been allowed to run down in the long peace following the Treaty of Oslande. We could not afford a war with both Valon and Sardea which is what would have happened then.”
“You are saying that the Chancellor of Sardea is a black sorcerer and a multiple murderer,” he said.
“I’m rather afraid the former Chancellor is.”
“And you came to this conclusion when you saw Lord Elakar’s body.”
“I have suspected something like it for awhile.”
“For how long?”
“Since I started investigating your history, Rik. Since I found out that the Shadowblood are still with us.”
He looked at her. A lot of things started to make sense. “That is why you have kept me with you.”
“One reason. The other is, and you are welcome to disbelieve me, that I am genuinely fond of you and grateful to you too.”
“What makes you think Malkior killed my mother?”
“It’s circumstantial, Rik. He is the only member of the embassy old enough to remember Al’Terra. There were others who could have the training in sorcery, but he’s the only one old enough to be an Al’Terran Shadowblood.”
“That is not evidence that would stand up in a court of law.”
“You can see why I do not want to tell Captain Quinal. There is another reason. Take a look at that picture. Take a look at the central figure.”
“The tall knight with the glowing sword?”
“Yes. Does he remind you of anybody, Rik?”
There was something familiar about that central figure. He heard something clink on the table behind him. When he turned around he saw a small beauty mirror there. Asea held it up to him, reflective surface facing in his direction.
“No,” he said.
He looked into the mirror, fascinated as if it were a snake. There was a resemblance.
“The knight in the picture is Lord Malkior. This painting was commissioned to celebrate his triumph over the Deep Lords at the Battle of Pelagia in the year 189 of the Conquest.”
“That was nearly 800 years ago,” Rik realised that he was pointing out the obvious but he could think of nothing else to say. “You are saying I am his son.”
“I believe that to be the case.”
“What makes you think that he killed the Old Queen?”
“He was there. He was in a position to do it, if he had the powers of a Shadowblood.”
“There are many other things that can be explained if he is, Rik. Old defeats and old betrayals. The Princes of Shadow were always suspiciously well informed about our plans on Al’Terra. Many traitors were found, but not all of them, it seems.”
“Anything else? It still seems a very slender theory to me.”
“To me, too. But I have waited for almost five centuries to put this together, Rik, and this is the closest I have ever come. I think Lord Malkior killed Queen Amarielle. He certainly benefited from her death. He became Empress Arachne’s closest councillor.”
Rik did not like the intensity in her voice. There was a trace of madness there, of insane obsession. He reminded himself that this woman was more than two thousand years old, and she had brooded on this thing for centuries. That could twist a mind in ways he simply could not comprehend. Perhaps she was not insane. Perhaps this was simply the way of ancient Terrarchs. That was a frightening thought.
“But you are not certain…”
“No. Rik. All I have is a theory. But like all good theories it is subject to verification.”
“There is a family resemblance between you and Tamara. Even Lieutenant Sardec spotted it the other night.”
Rik shuddered. “Sardec?”
“Yes, even the good Lieutenant saw a resemblance.”
Rik felt a little sick. Asea continued as if she had not noticed.
“Lord Elakar was killed shortly after she arrived. By a Shadowblood. I am certain.”
“It might be Lord Jaderac. Or one of their entourage.”
“It might be. But none of them fit my theory. She does.”
“You said you were going to test your theory.” Rik could see where this was leading and he did not like it in the slightest.
“I am going to take her into my custody.”
“Do you have the power? She is an Ambassador.”
“There have been many kidnappings and assassinations recently, Rik. This will be one more.”
“Kidnapping or assassination?”
“Most likely both. She cannot be freed once she knows who we are.”
“I doubt Her Majesty would approve of what we are about to do. I doubt our army commanders would either. So it will have to be us, and a couple of your old friends from the regiment. You know the two I mean.”
“Weasel and the Barbarian?”
“Yes. They will keep their mouths shut. There is still the matter of the forbidden books you stole from the Prophet Zarahel. The Inquisition would not make life easy for them if they found out.”
“That is a business I have had cause to regret,” said Rik softly.
“Meddling with forbidden knowledge always gives you that, Rik. Trust me, I know.” Her voice was soft and dangerous. Nonetheless, Rik felt compelled to oppose her will.
“This is madness. What if we are caught? Three humans trying to kidnap a Terrarch noblewoman? It would be the stake for us, after torture.”
“Then you had better not be caught.” She held his gaze easily, and he found he could not meet her burning stare nor match her implacable will. She was utterly serious about this and she did not care who got hurt if they got in her way.
“Why are you doing this? Why are you so driven?”
“Because Amarielle was my friend, as well as my Queen, and I failed her, and I am still Terrarch enough to want revenge. Because I am sick of being beaten by the minions of Shadow. Because if I am right and the Shadowblood are here, more than the lives of a few people are at stake.”
Her words chilled him. He looked at her silently. She seemed to feel the need to convince him because she went on. “Look at what’s happening, Rik. Look at what you have seen with your own eyes. Ancient cults summoning demon gods. Obscene sorcery of the sort that created the Nerghul. The Imperium shattered by civil war. It’s starting to look like the last days of Al’Terra all over again.”
“Why not tell the authorities this? Why not let people know?”
She paused for a moment, as if considering saying something. When she spoke, he was convinced that she had been about to say something different and then stopped. “I have told people my suspicions, Rik. Azaar shares them. So does Queen Arielle. But at the moment, all they are is suspicions, and now is not the time to make them public.”
“For one thing, people would think it was merely black propaganda against the Sardeans. For another, the humans…” Her voice faltered in uncharacteristic uncertainty.
“If humans started to suspect that Terrarchs were in league with the Princes of Shadow, there would be revolution,” Rik said.
“At the very least it would undermine the fabric of our society at the very time when we needed to be united. You can see why I need to be certain, and why I need to deal with this quietly if I can. I want to know exactly how far the rot has spread.”
“What will you do to her when we capture Tamara?”
“I will make her talk.”
“She will be able to resist your sorcery if she is a Shadowblood.”
“There are other ways than sorcery to make people talk.”
Rik knew exactly what those methods were.
“Bloody cold tonight,” said Weasel. They sat huddled in the front of a cart in a roadway on the street of the Palace in which Jaderac and Tamara dwelled. It was a large place, brilliantly lit, disturbingly close to the Grand Cemetery. The wind was cold. A mixture of rain and snow filled the air and reflected the sorcerous street-lights on the cobbles. Rik pulled his cloak tight around him but still he felt chilled right through to the bone.
“You call this cold,” said the Barbarian. “You’ve obviously never been in the Northlands.”
“And I hope never to go there,” said Weasel.
Worry gnawed at Rik. He worried about the effect of the damp on the pistols in his belt. He worried about whether Tamara had spotted them as they had spied on her for the past week and would somehow be prepared for them. He worried about what he was going to do when he faced her, what would happen when she talked to Asea. There were things that they had done, and deeds they had discussed that he would not care for his patron to know about.
He considered whether Tamara should have an accident before she could talk to the sorceress. His pistols could easily go off accidentally. The truesilver bullet in one of them would kill her whether she was a Shadowblood or not. That might be for the best, certainly from his point of view. He was not sure he could do it.
Asea might be wrong about Tamara. She was planning to have her abducted and killed just to test a theory. Rik was surprised that he could still be shocked by something like that. He considered himself cold-blooded but Asea was being cold-blooded on a scale that he would never aspire to. He supposed she had her reasons. Tamara might be able to inform them about a conspiracy that threatened their entire world.
But, if Asea was right, Tamara was his half-sister. It ought to mean something but he did not really care about that. He had not known her before Morven. They had not grown up together. She was a stranger who had come of age with every privilege the Dark Empire could provide while he had scrambled to survive on the streets of Sorrow.
Tamara had already admitted that she had conspired to have him killed. Surely he would be within his rights to kill her. He pushed the idea aside. He wanted to know what Tamara had to say and whether Asea was right about her father. His father too, perhaps, although he was not quite prepared to take that on faith.
A lot of strange threads of his strange life were being blown on this night’s cold winds. A family he had never known he possessed had appeared, and turned out to be on the other side in the war he was fighting. Perhaps his father had killed the mother he had never known. It all seemed sick and mad and dangerous. Would it not be better if he simply ran off into the night to find a place to hide and bury himself?
He knew he could not. He wanted the matter resolved, to find out the secrets of his past, no matter how dark they might prove. And he wanted, if he could, to avenge himself on the people who had made his life so miserable. More than that, he wanted, in his own strange way, to see justice done.
Terrarchs like Malkior and Tamara were above the laws that applied to mortals like him. Or at least they thought they were. They planned murder and they killed and they got away with it. There was no way someone like him could bring them to justice. Normally. Just this once, he might be able to do it. If Asea was right, if this was not all just some mad fantasy of her sorceress’s brain, or part of some intricate inhuman scheme that he would never be able to understand.
“Think they’ll be here soon?” asked the Barbarian.
“I don’t know. The ball must be over by now,” said Rik.
“What are you going to do with the gold?” the Barbarian asked. Asea had promised them gold if this went well.
“Spend it on beer, cards and girls,” said Weasel. He was squinting into the gloom. Some figures still moved in the street despite the cold and the wet. What errands would keep them abroad at this time and in this weather, Rik wondered? Fears niggled at him along with the worries and doubts.
Tamara was a sorceress. She had proven that back in Morven with the spells she had used to disguise herself. If she was a Shadowblood she would have other tricks up her sleeve. The strange magic she had used to murder Lord Elakar could just as easily be used against the three of them.
If she was a Shadowblood.
His hand fumbled for the amulet Asea had given him, seeking reassurance that it was still there. It was woven round with the most potent warding charms, would protect them against the most powerful spells, or so Asea claimed. But Lord Elakar had been protected by wards and that had not saved him. Perhaps Tamara knew some way of bypassing these charms as well.
He heard the neighing of destriers in the distance, and the clatter of wheels on cobblestones. The sound came from the right direction. This could be the coach returning from the ball.
“Get ready, lads,” he told the others. The Barbarian raised his two blades affirmatively. Weasel took the cover partially off his long-barrelled rifle. The hood of the cart provided cover from the rain. The Barbarian tugged the reins and it rolled out into the street blocking the way forward. There was the sound of a coach coming to a halt and a driver shouting; “Out of the way oafs! How dare you block the path of the High Lady Tamara — it’ll be the stocks for you if don’t get a shift on and out of our way.”
Rik looked at Weasel. “Time to get this show on the road,” he said.
The Barbarian got down from the cart and walked towards the coach. Rik joined him. The coachmen kept shouting at them.
“Meaning no offence to her Ladyship,” said Rik, “but our cart’s wheel is broken. It’ll take us some time to move her.”
The coachmen continued to heap insults on them, and Rik saw a head look out the coach window and then get drawn swiftly back inside. It was very definitely Tamara.
The two coachmen climbed down. One had a club. The other had a pistol. Rik felt a small trickle of fear pass up his spine. It would only take one shot to end his life, and that shot might well be lodged within the weapon. In battle he could run towards men firing on him, but it was an entirely different proposition on a cold night when the law might be set upon you at any moment.
Why was that, he wondered? It was not like the actual situation was any more dangerous.
He clutched his own pistols beneath his cloak, reminding himself that the one in his right held the truesilver bullet. That might be a mistake he now thought. It looked like he would have to use the normal pistol first. It was funny how things like that so rarely occurred to you when you were making plans.
Two more coachmen climbed down from the rear. One of them held a lantern and a small pistol. The other a blunderbuss, a trumpet-barrelled weapon loaded with nails and shot. It would make a big mess of anyone it hit even if the range was not great. The man with the lantern moved to the window of the coach and said something to the passengers within. Rik thought he heard both a male voice and a female voice but he was not sure. It might just have been the servant speaking.
Asea’s sources had assured them that Lord Jaderac usually went about his own business at night while Tamara attended the balls and parties, but it would be just his bad luck if the noble had decided to accompany the girl home this evening. Rik had a bad feeling about this turn of events. They were already outnumbered and Jaderac was a formidable warrior as well as a deadly sorcerer.
Looking at the bright side, Rik had a score to settle with Jaderac for sending the Nerghul after him. Now might be the time to pay that bill off in full. Assuming he got the chance. He tried one of the breathing exercises Asea has taught him for sorcery, and the tension flowed out of him. His muscles felt loose and relaxed. If violence erupted he was as ready for it as he was ever going to be.
“Halt right there,” said the man with the blunderbuss. “Don’t come any closer if you value your life.”
Briefly Rik wondered if something had given them away, then he realised that the servant was simply being cautious. It was night and the streets were relatively empty in this part of the city.
It was time to make the decision. Go through with the original plan and snatch Tamara or back off. His body seemed to make the choice for him, long before he could think through the possibilities consciously. He nodded at the same time as he stuck his left pistol hand forward from under his cloak and opened fire.
Some dark god answered his prayer. The weapon did not misfire. The man with the blunderbuss fell over, a bloom of blood appearing on his breast. The man with the pistol fell a moment later, a victim of Weasel’s sharpshooting. Almost simultaneously the Barbarian erupted into action, springing forward like a sabre-tooth, striking the leading coachman. His blade went into the man’s chest silver and came out red. The last servant took one look at what was going on and turned and ran. Rik did not blame him.
Upset by the smell of blood the destriers pranced. The Barbarian grabbed them by the reins and tried to gentle them. Rik stepped to the running board of the coach, leapt up, pulled the door open and thrust his pistol in.
“Stand and deliver,” he said.
“Please, don’t hurt me,” said Tamara, every inch the picture of the frightened noblewoman. Rik was suspicious. He knew what a good actor she was.
“If you do what you are told, Milady, you won’t be hurt. Step out of the coach.”
Tamara nodded and moved towards him. She seemed clumsy in her thick skirts, and appeared to stumble. He had been expecting something like this but even so the speed and ferocity of her blow almost took him by surprise. Fingers spread wide, nails like talons, she lashed out at his face. Even prepared as he was, he had barely time to avoid the strike, leaping backwards from the running board into the street. He could feel the wound she had given him sting.
“That was most unwise, Milady,” he said.
“I don’t think so, Rik,” she said. “You see my coachmen gave me time to prepare for you. There is poison on my nails.”
Rik was not surprised that she knew who he was. Tamara was observant and she was a mistress of disguise. He doubted she would have any difficulty seeing through his ruse.
“Really,” he said. Was the wound tingling? Did he feel a little dizzy? “Will your nails stop a bullet?”
“Cosmetics are a good way of hiding drugs,” she said conversationally. “Face powders can contain many interesting alchemicals. Just be grateful I don’t want you dead. There are still things we need to discuss.”
He noticed there were needles in her hand now, long ones, that looked like crocheting hooks but which he guessed were a lot sharper. Even in the bad light he could tell there was a white powder on them as well. Perhaps she was serious. And perhaps they had made a serious mistake. She was not defending herself with sorcery. She was prepared to use something else.
“Having some trouble with a chit of girl, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. “Let me show you how it’s done.”
He moved in front of Rik, an action for which one second later he was profoundly glad. He heard the Barbarian grunt in surprise. Rik stepped to one side to get a clearer shot and saw that the big man and the Terrarch noble were exchanging blows with eye blurring speed. The Barbarian was awesomely fast and strong and yet Tamara appeared to have him on the defensive. A less skilled close combat fighter would have already been impaled on the poisoned needles.
He raised the pistol. His fingers felt numb. Tamara noticed his action and threw one of the needles at him. It buried itself in his arm. The pain put him off his shot and the truesilver bullet tore through the night above her head. Smiling she turned and gestured with her fingers. Lights exploded in the air in front of the Barbarian’s face. Somehow he managed to avoid having the needle stab through his jugular vein. Instead it buried itself in his neck.
“Bitch,” he grunted. Tamara withdrew the needle and stepped back for a moment. She paused as if listening to something. There was a roar from the middle distance. Somehow warned she almost managed to avoid the shot. It took her in the shoulder, spun her around and sent her collapsing to the ground.
Rik shook his head and tried to gather his wits. Weasel had opened fire, he realised, as the numbness moved up his arm and through his forehead. He had definitely been poisoned. His arm hung limply by his side. There was not a lot he could do. Tamara was moving again, starting to pick herself up. He reeled over to her and aimed a kick. She blocked the blow with her left hand and despite the heavy dress dragging in the wet managed to rotate her body below him and kick his leg. He dropped to the ground, even as she rose, turning her head. Rik looked in the direction she did and saw Weasel raise his long-barrelled rifle once more. Tamara sprang into the mouth of the alley. Blood dripped from the wound in her shoulder.
Weasel came running up and looked at the two of them. “This is not going too well,” he said.
“Do tell,” said the Barbarian. “Would never have noticed if you had not told me.” His voice was slurred and weakening. Weasel bent and touched the ground. His fingers came up red. He touched them to his lips and then looked at the trail of blood.
“Look after the big man,” he said to Rik. “I’ll get the girl. She can’t have gone far and she’s bleeding like a stuck pig.”
Somehow Rik got across and managed to tie a bandage over the wound in the Barbarian’s neck. A moment later, he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise, and the oddest sensation flowed through his mind. He thought he felt something coming from the back of the alley. He heard a shrieking, tearing noise that he was sure was not audible to anybody else. Sorcery, he thought.
Weasel was gone for so long that Rik was starting to worry. Eventually he came back out of the alley.
“Did you get her?” he asked. Weasel shook his head.
“Damnedest thing,” he said. “The alley is a dead end. Nothing there but a wall and trash pile.. It’s like she’s vanished into the thin air. All I could see was a patch of shadows, that crawled and gave me the creeps.”
If it was enough to frighten Weasel it must be really something. Rik tried to fight the dizziness and reeled to his feet. “Best show me it,” he said.
“Are you mad? We’d best get out of here before the law comes. This has been hanging work tonight, if we’re caught for it.”
“No, I want to see.” Rik staggered down to the end of the alley and saw at once what Weasel meant. There was something at the end of the alley, a patch of shadow that whispered and shimmered. At first he thought it was a side-effect of the poison but something about it set his teeth on edge. He recognised this thing at the very core of his being, even if he was not sure what it was.
He reached out and touched it. His fingers tingled and vanished. His fingertips felt very cold. He withdrew them to make sure they were all right.
The thing continued to fade until there was no longer even a whisper of its presence. What was going on here, he wondered? Then a wave of dizziness swept over him, and he tumbled forward into darkness.
Rik looked up at Asea. For a moment he had no idea where he was. Had he exhausted himself performing mystical spells again? Then memory of the fight with Tamara came back to him. He looked around and saw that he was in his own chambers in the mansion.
“What happened?” he asked. “How did I get here?”
Asea’s face has a tight quality to it. It took him a moment to realise that she was barely containing her rage. He had never seen her this way before. He forced himself to be calm.
“Weasel brought you and the big man back. On the cart. He told me his version of what happened. Why don’t you tell me yours? Tamara escaped?”
There was no denying it or defending it. “She was a lot tougher than we expected. Faster too. She poisoned me and the Barbarian. Why am I not dead, by the way?”
“The poison she used was not intended to kill you, merely slow you and weaken you until you fell unconscious. Perhaps that is why she seemed so fast and strong.”
Rik shook his head. “She was moving swiftly before she struck me. That was not the effect of any poison, I am sure.”
“Go on.” There was more than rage there, he realised. There was excitement too. Asea was like a hound that had caught a scent and was ready for the chase.
“She almost managed to dodge a shot fired by Weasel, and I am sure she did not manage to poison him.”
“So he told me.” Rik felt a reaction set in. He could have died this last evening. Most probably would have if Tamara really wanted him dead.
“How could she have been so quick?” Rik asked. “And so strong? She is not built like the Barbarian.”
“There were mystical disciplines on Al’Terra that focused on combat. They allowed their practitioners to perform astonishing feats of martial skill. Malkior would know them. It appears he has taught his daughter.”
“A form of magic, you mean?”
“If you will.”
“Spells to make you stronger, faster, deadlier?”
“Techniques of the mind and spirit would be a better description but spells will do just as well.”
“So all we have really proven is that Tamara knows magic. We knew that already.”
Rik realised he had made a mistake. He knew that already. He had never told Asea about it. “She is a Terrarch, isn’t she? Learning sorcery would have come naturally to her.”
“Quite so.” Rik sensed that Asea was uneasy with him. Perhaps she sensed his lies.
“In any case we know she can now.”
“She recognised you.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“The big man heard her say your name. So did Weasel.”
“How is the Barbarian?”
“He will live. The needle missed his jugular, and I have neutralised the poison in his bloodstream, just as I have done for you.”
“A useful trick. I wish you had taught me it.”
“I will make it the highest priority in your studies, Rik. I have a feeling that you are going to be needing it, and the ability to heal yourself.”
He was relieved to find that she still trusted him at least that much. Or perhaps she was trying to lull him into a false sense of security. He would not have put it past her.
“Tell me more about the whispering shadow you saw.”
He told her all he could remember about it, including his suspicion that it was a hallucination brought on by the poison.
“I don’t think so. Weasel saw it too.”
“Do you have any idea what it was? It put the wind up the two of us for certain.”
“It was a shadowgate.”
“A hole in the fabric of reality linking two points in shadow. A sorcerer who knows how to make one can use it to move between one point and another without passing through the space in between.”
“You think Tamara used it to escape?”
“I am certain of it.” There was the excitement of the hunt again in her voice.
“That’s powerful magic.”
“You have no idea how powerful, Rik.”
“I take it you do.”
“Under the circumstances you fought Tamara in, it would be beyond me.”
“You are saying that Tamara is a better mage than you are.”
“Not in general — but in this particular area, yes, unless she possessed some artefact that allowed her to do it.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Spells of translocation are very difficult under the best of circumstances. They involve manipulating forces of a very high order. The spells required to open the paths between normally require long and complex ritual preparations, as well as enormous power.”
Rik thought he could see where this was going. “Tamara had no time for such.”
“Wounded as she was she should not have been able to maintain the necessary level of concentration to cast such a spell even if she could. At least if she was a normal sorcerer.”
“I don’t follow you.”
“There’s no reason why you should. There are many different types of magic, Rik, and many different ways of invoking them. The Shadowblood had many gifts, magical talents that were bred into them, that they could use as easily as a man can walk or run. Using shadowgates was one of those talents.”
“You are saying these assassins could move through shadows at will.”
“Not at will, Rik. I am guessing now but I believe that opening such a gate would use up considerable energy even for a Shadowblood. I doubt she could open more than one such gate without resting.”
A thought occurred to Rik. “Could you not trace where she went by studying the shadowgate? Would they not leave traces?”
“It’s one of the properties of shadowgates that they fade quickly without leaving such traces. Perhaps if I had been with you and seen the portal before it faded I might have been able to trace it. Now there will not even be the normal residual traces of tau that most magic leaves after it has been used. You can see how such a quality would be useful to an assassin.”
Indeed Rik could. “This is how she reached Elakar.”
“That would be my guess.”
An idea struck Rik with the force of a blow. “No one would be safe from a wizard with such a power. They could come and go as they pleased and no one would ever be able to stop them.”
“You are very nearly correct, Rik. Fortunately they do have some limits.”
“I think I would like to know what they are — for my own safety.”
“The first is that their range is very short. A normal magical portal — at least on Al’Terra could be set up to span continents. A shadowgate can only stretch a few hundred yards.”
“So Tamara must still have been fairly close to us, even after she used the gate?”
“What other flaws does this magic have?”
“You can’t just open them anywhere. You need to have a very clear idea in your mind of the exit point, otherwise the gate simply will not open.”
“I do not know. No one does. The theory is that it is a principle of sympathetic magic — you must see the place in your mind in order to be able to go there.”
A thought struck Rik as she was speaking. “We were close to Tamara’s mansion, easily within a few hundred yards. She would have been able to open a gate into the place.”
“Yes. If there were shadows in her room or some other location she was familiar with.”
“Why would there need to be shadows?”
“It’s one of the conditions of the spell. It can only connect two shadows.”
“How could she have gotten into Lord Elakar’s chambers?”
“Perhaps she had been there before.”
“You mean she had been his lover.”
“Lord Elakar was a man of great appetite and vanity. It would have flattered that vanity to number the daughter of Lord Malkior among his conquests.”
“Were they ever seen together?”
“That can be checked. There are other ways she could have done it. If she was familiar with the Palace — which she was. She had visited it often when it was owned by friends of Khaldarus.”
“Are we safe from infiltration here?”
“There’s a reason why I change my room often, Rik, and why I order the furniture moved, and the hangings changed every night.”
You did not get to reach Asea’s age by not being careful about such things. More ideas flooded into his mind in a torrent.
“Lord Malkior would have been familiar with the Palace in which the old Queen was assassinated.”
“I can see how all your suspicions fit together, Milady. All except one.”
“How could this spell get past wards?”
“Wards do not extend into all planes, Rik. That would take too much energy.”
“Think of them as alternate levels of reality, running side by side with our world, like pages lying beside each other in a book.”
“So the Shadowgate allows you to move between two points in our world by leaving it, and passing through the world of Shadows.”
“Presumably that is why the entrance and exit must be in shadow.”
“It is as good an explanation as any. I am glad you grasped it so quickly.”
“That is where my hand went when I put it into the gate.”
“It was cold there.”
“Quite possibly airless too. The alternate planes are not always friendly to life, at least not as we know it.”
“So she could not have survived in there for long.”
“No one could. That is why a shadowgate is a relatively short ranged phenomenon.”
Excitement filled Rik. “Could I learn to do this?”
“Given your heritage, it is entirely likely, yes. You have a long way to go before you can weave such complex magic, Rik.”
“But I will be able to do it?”
“Perhaps.” A vision of a world in which he possessed great power sprang into Rik’s mind. All he had to do was live long enough to get to it.
A loud knock sounded on the door. “Who is it?” Asea asked.
“A messenger from Lord Azaar, Milady,” said Karim. “He says it’s a matter most urgent.”
“Have you heard the news?” Lieutenant Jazeray asked.
Sardec looked up from the report he was writing. “News?”
“It seems Lady Tamara’s coach was attacked by highwaymen last night. Her footmen were all slaughtered. She herself only just managed to escape.”
Sardec raised an eyebrow. “She was very lucky then.”
“I don’t know the whole story but it seems she managed to slip out of the other side of the coach while her footmen held the rogues off. She was only a few yards from the door of the Palace when this happened.”
“The local bandits are getting very enterprising.”
“Maybe they were not bandits.”
“What do you mean?”
“The local patriots have been very busy recently. Perhaps they hate the Dark Empire as much as they hate us.”
“We should be so lucky.”
“It could be worse. Think of what would have happened if she had been killed.”
“Would not have reflected very well on our honour, would it? Lady with Ambassador’s portfolio being killed. I have heard Lord Azaar has assigned a team of bodyguards to watch the street outside the mansion. Why are you smiling?”
“That will let him keep an eye on her and restrict her movements.”
“You think this was all a ploy to let him do that? You are not as naive as you look, my dear Sardec.”
“Anything else?” Sardec looked meaningfully back at the pile of paperwork in front of him.
“Lady Asea is helping the Magisters assigned to look into the matter.”
“Let’s hope she has more success with this than she had finding Lord Elakar’s butcher.”
“I thought you were close to her.”
“I am. My wish is a sincere one.”
“I don’t know how long she’ll have to make her inquiries.”
“What do you mean?”
“I hear she is to be dispatched to Harven on a diplomatic mission. To try and get the Sea Devils on our side.”
“Indeed. What’s more, I have a pretty good idea who is going to be her bodyguard.”
“Our young half-breed comrade?”
Jazeray laughed. “Who commanded her bodyguard at Deep Achenar?”
Sardec stared at him. “I did.”
“Colonel Xeno just received a letter bearing her Ladyship’s seal. I left him scowling over it. He said to give him ten minutes and send you in.”
“Thank the light you did not tell me sooner. I might have worried.”
“I think you’d better go and see His Nibs right now. Ten minutes must be up.”
Sardec rose from his chair and made his way to the Colonel’s office.
“Harven?” said Rik. “Why are we going to Harven?”
Asea smiled sourly and put the General’s letter down on her writing table. “Lord Azaar has asked me to go and negotiate a new treaty with the Free Council.”
“Surely there are other people just as qualified?”
“According to our new supreme commander I am not only the best qualified, I am the best respected. In Harven it is known that I have the ear of Queen Arielle. That the information is a little out of date has not reached the august council of merchants.”
He took a deep breath and went through the mystical exercises she had given him, trying to alter the state of his mind along with the state of his body and concentrate on her words at the same time. It was good practise for sorcery apparently.
“His Lordship had other reasons?”
“Yes, my apprentice, he has. He suspects I was behind the attack on Tamara. That is why he assigned me to supervise the mages looking into the matter. No one has ever accused my half-brother of being a fool.”
“Why would he suspect that?”
“He has a nose for such things.”
Rik thought he detected a half-truth or an outright evasion there, but he was in no position to call her on it. “Did the mages find out anything?” Rik asked, pausing for a moment. He had a very real interest in this. He, Weasel and the Barbarian could easily end up being hanged for their part in it. If they were lucky they would not be tortured before their death.
“Nothing remotely interesting. Divination revealed that there were two attackers, which was strange because we found the footprints of three men. The watch are still looking for a missing footman, one who ran away. They think he might have been in collusion with the attackers.”
“How has Lady Tamara fared after her ordeal?”
“She is very distressed and will not set foot outside the ambassadorial mansion. She was apparently wounded, and the poor dear is having difficulty recovering despite Lord Jaderac’s patient ministrations.”
“What are you going to do about that pair?”
Asea grimaced. “There is nothing I can do now. I have sent her a message offering to bear news of her condition to her father.”
Rik stared at her. “Her father?”
“Lord Malkior is leading a Sardean deputation to Harven. We are not the only nation wooing the free city, it seems.”
Her smile seemed especially cold now. “You expect to meet with him there?”
“Indeed I do, Rik, indeed I do. It is a thing I most especially desire.”
“And then what?”
“We shall see what we shall see.”
Her smile told him all he needed to know about her reasons for taking this mission. He suspected that if Asea had her way, Lord Malkior would not be leaving the free port alive. He had a good idea who would be expected to do the killing.
He had barely survived his encounter with the daughter. It gave him no reason to look forward to meeting the father.
“How long will you be gone?” Rena asked.
Sardec took her in his arms. “Too long,” he said, and meant it.
She kissed him and he responded with passion.
“How long?” Her voice was very small.
“I don’t know. It will take at least a week to get to Harven, and then however long it takes for Lady Asea to convince the burghers to take our side, or at least not to interfere in the war.”
“How long might that be?”
“It might take the whole winter,” he said. “But I hope not. I hope we will be back in time for Kathea’s coronation.”
“You will have forgotten me by the time winter is over.”
“I will never forget you,” he said. “Not ever.”
Privately he wondered whether he might. Not for the reason she feared but because the ghoul disease might overtake him and swallow his sanity. He was still not sure he had a clean bill of health. He was glad he had written her the letter now. She would only get it if something happened to him, but at least she would know how he felt about her, and she would be taken care of in case of his death. He was glad more for his own sake than hers for at least he had finally managed to tell her what he thought about her, although he could never bring himself to say it in speech.
“Never?” she said.
“That’s a long time.”
“I mean it.”
“I had better go and get the men ready,” he said, suddenly embarrassed by his outpouring of emotion. He found it very difficult to let her go. He had a foreboding that he might never see her again, and he took it very seriously.
Lord Jaderac sat down beside Tamara’s bed. She looked pale. More so than she ought to have, given the slightness of her wound. He had inspected it himself and had found no trace of infection but, it was always possible, although unlikely, he was wrong about it.
“Are you sure you are all right?” he asked. His concern for her welfare was unfeigned. Her father was his greatest ally among the Sardean nobility and the Brotherhood, and it would not bode well for him if something happened to her while she was in his care.
“I am well on the way to recovery.”
“You are sure it was the half-breed who attacked you?”
“I should have killed him back at the Serpent Tower,” Jaderac said.
“I seem to recall you gave it your best effort. The Nerghul was supposed to be invincible, yet somehow he survived it.”
“It was most likely Ilmarec’s sorcery. It followed him into the Tower after all.” Jaderac realised that somehow Tamara had taken control of the conversation and directed him away from the questions he wanted to ask. He shook his head. He was not going to allow that. He had too many suspicions about his companion. He wanted some answers.
“Why did he attack you?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do, Tamara. Please don’t take me for one of those foolish young men whose brains turn to jelly when you bat your eyelashes at them.”
“Then use those brains you boast about. He suspected I was behind the Nerghul’s attack. He told me as much at Elakar’s ball. Perhaps he simply wanted revenge.”
“He does not seem like a stupid man. And performing such an act without his patron’s blessing would be folly bordering on madness.”
“Aren’t you the one who is always telling me that humans are driven by their glands? Perhaps he is foolish or mad.”
Jaderac sat down beside her bed. “Don’t you find it the least bit suspicious that a few days after Lord Elakar passes on to a better world, Asea’s pet attempts to abduct you?”
“I am not sure I follow you.”
“Why would she risk a diplomatic incident? Lord Azaar is not a Terrarch who would enjoy having his reputation besmirched. He has always been a stickler about points of honour.”
“Perhaps she did not expect me to escape.”
“I admit despite your many talents I am surprised that you managed it as well. By the way, where were you when Lord Elakar was killed?”
“Surely you do not suspect me of that?” Tamara’s smile had a vicious edge. She was glad he suspected, perhaps even proud of it. Could she really have managed the killing on her own? That particular killing made Jaderac think of sorcery far older and darker than most practised here on Gaeia. He studied her closely, taking in the resemblance to her father. Malkior had taught him many strange and sinister secrets. Perhaps he had passed on a few to his daughter. She had certainly demonstrated an uncanny talent for magic.
Perhaps she in touch with some of her father’s old allies. That seemed far more likely. Some of them were formidable indeed. Jaderac sensed he was sailing on dark waters here, and every instinct told him to be careful. He had his own plans, and Elakar’s death certainly played well towards those. He did not want anything happen to spoil things.
She picked one of the roses up from the vase at the side of the bed. “Be a dear and open those curtains. I would like to see sunlight, grey and wintry though it might be.”
He did so, although the task was one a menial should have performed. She smiled at him. “How goes your plan?”
“Very well. The Brotherhood’s lab is most useful. I have drained the ghouls of blood, and begun to work on the serums. My fellow necromancers in the Brotherhood have begun preparing the ground. Kathea’s coronation is going to be a most interesting event.”
“And you have succeeded in creating another Nerghul?” Jaderac looked at her. Was she mocking him? Did she know about the trouble he was having. He had followed the rituals precisely but the creature did not seem to want to wake. There was some flaw in the matrix. He must have missed something but he could not think what. There was still time, he told himself.
“It is almost complete. Do you have some special use for it in mind?”
Tamara looked up at the ceiling and smiled. “I am sure I can think of something,” she said.
“I see you arranged our getaway vehicle, Halfbreed,” said Weasel. He sat on a crate watching men load supplies on to the huge barge that was to take them to Harven. The rest of the men were in the nearby taverns, saying good-bye to families, sweethearts or favourite whores. It was a cold clear day and Weasel liked to sit outside and smoke his pipe.
“What do you mean?” Rik asked. He had come over as soon as he had seen the former poacher sitting there.
“Nothing, nothing at all. If that’s the way you and her Ladyship want it.” So Weasel thought this whole diplomatic mission was just a cover story to get them out of town, did he? Sometimes he was a little too cunning for his own good. Or maybe it was a cover. Rik was in no position to claim he knew all of Asea’s mind.
“I would not mention that too loudly if I were you.”
“A nod is as good as a wink.”
They studied the dockers. Most were short burly men who used hooks to move the supply crates and bales.
“Did not realise we needed so much cloth,” said Weasel, studying the rolls of fabric being moved aboard.
“We’re not the only cargo. I reckon the captain intends to make a profit on trading as well as carrying us.”
“Can’t say as I blame him. If I had thought of it, I would have done the same myself.” Rik would have been surprised if Weasel had not put some stuff aboard on his own account already but decided it would not be diplomatic to mention this.
“How long you reckon this is going to take?” he asked.
“Most of the folk I talked to reckon we’ll get there in a week. Providing we don’t have no accidents. Or we don’t run into any river pirates, or the odd rogue wyrm.”
“It would be a damn stupid bunch of bandits that attacked a ship carrying a squad of Foragers and Lady Asea.”
“Would be a damn stupid bunch of highwaymen that attacked a Terrarch noblewoman and her footmen. It still happened.”
Rik could see what Weasel was getting at. “You reckon we might have an accident.”
“I reckon there’s some might be out for a bit of revenge, and we’ll be moving through no-man’s land for a good deal of this trip.”
“Not strictly speaking true. The lands along the river are mostly held by Terrarch Aristals. Some have declared for one side or another but none of them will risk an attack on a boat flying the diplomatic flag in the winter season.”
“Bet Lady Tamara thought the same.”
“There’s something about her that has you spooked, isn’t there?”
“You’re right there, Halfbreed. Never thought a chit of a girl could have come so close to taking out the three of us. Three of us, Halfbreed, and we’re all of us hard, hard men.
“I’ve never seen a better man with a blade than the Barbarian, but he’s still got a scarf wrapped round that bull neck of his to hide the stab wound. A girl in a ball gown almost killed him with a knitting needle, and him with those butcher knives in his hands.”
Rik looked over his shoulder to make sure there was no one close enough to overhear what they were saying. He saw only a few more carts being drawn up. Dockers were loading a huge riverine bridgeback from them, but they were more than twenty yards away.
“There’s something else, isn’t there?” Rik said.
“You bet. There’s that shadow thing we saw. That was a product of black sorcery and no mistake.”
“It scared you?”
Weasel gave him a lop-sided grin that revealed sharp yellowish teeth. “Let’s just say it got me to thinking.”
“She knew who you were.”
“Maybe she knows who me and the Barbarian are too.”
Rik shook his head. “I doubt it. She’d met me before.”
“I hope you’re right. She’s a witch that one and I would not want her putting the evil eye on me.”
“Uran Ultar did not manage that. Ilmarec of the Serpent Tower did not either. I think you’re safe.”
Weasel glanced up at the nearby spire of the dockside temple and made and Elder Sign of Warding over his heart. “You think she had anything to do with that Nerghul thing that attacked us back in Morven?”
“Most likely — either her or Jaderac.”
“Thought as much. I would watch my back if I were you, Rik. She’s poison that one.”
“I’ll watch your back if you watch mine.”
Weasel spat on his hand and offered it to shake. Rik did the same. It had not escaped his notice that the former poacher had used his real name which was a mark of how seriously he took the situation. “I’ll take you up on that.”
They wiped their hands. “What do you know of Harven?” Weasel asked, obviously wanting to change the subject.
“Big city,” said Rik. “Nearly as big as this one. Built on a chain of islands in the estuary of the river. Huge seaport, massive trading power. A free state, ruled by its own council, who put trade before anything.”
“And what about the Quan? You know anything about the Sea Devils?”
“They say they are the only Elder World demons still really active in the world. Lady Asea says they are not demons but some star-lost race who fell from the sky long ago. They have cities beneath the sea. Some of the beasts are large enough to pull down ships bigger than this one.”
“They are allies of the Harvenites, aren’t they?”
“They have some sort of pact. It’s why Harven is still a free city. Some say it’s why she is Queen of the Northern Seas. No nation with a fleet wants to have the Shipbreakers fighting against them.”
“Thought they were supposed to be neutral in all conflicts, trade with every side. A free port, a safe meeting ground, that sort of thing.”
“Times are changing. This war may shift the balance of power on the continent for ever.”
More wagons rolled up. Karim sat on one.
“Here comes her Ladyship’s stuff.”
The dockers started manhandling massive chests and hampers down from the back of the wagons. They were all marked with the symbol of Asea’s house, a red tower, and men moved them carefully.
“She surely is taking a lot of stuff with her,” said Weasel. “What’s in those?”
“Thinking of trying to steal some of it?”
“That’s more your line than mine, Halfbreed. Least it used to be. No — I’m just curious.”
“You know as much as I do. Clothing, money, sorcerous adjuncts. Her tent and her wargear. You’ve travelled with her before. You know how much she carries.”
“Never thought I would hear myself say this, but I am glad she does. These are strange times, Halfbreed, strange times.”
“Of course, we would not be going if we was not escorting her, would we?” Weasel added.
“I’m sure the army would find something stupid for us to do.”
“You’re not in the army any more, old son, but I know what you mean.”
Sardec felt the boards beneath his feet. The barge rocked slightly. And it smelled of damp and wet and the slightly fishy tang of river wyrm. A docker with a hook wandered past, and Sardec found himself inspecting his own. There was a strange resemblance. A human saw him doing it. When Sardec’s gaze rested upon him, he bowed.
“I’m Mathias, the captain, your Lordship,” he said. He was a big burly man with a long black beard, plaited and oiled. He wore a jacket and britches of heavy broadcloth and a very wide tricorne hat. His hands were very large and gnarly. His voice was hoarse and rasping. “I’d like to welcome you aboard the River Dragon if I may.”
Sardec smiled. He did not bow back. It was not the place of a Terrarch to bow to a human. “Thank you, captain. On this trip I am on the Queen’s Commission so best you call me Lieutenant.”
“As you wish, Lieutenant.”
“When will we be under way?”
“Soon as her Ladyship is aboard we will hitch the wyrms. Should be quick enough trip, Lieutenant, we’re going down river.”
In the distance, Sardec could see a bunch of handlers bringing a huge river bridgeback upstream. It was a massive beast, larger even than its land-going cousin, so large it could walk along the bottom even of this river.
“I would not have thought it would make much difference, captain. The beast does not swim, so surely its speed would be the same no matter in which direction it walked.”
“You almost have it right, sir. See the beast gets less tired when it’s not pulling against the current. More tractable, can go further in a day.”
“It’s your business, captain, so I expect you are right.”
“I most definitely am, sir. Ah here’s her Ladyship now, sir. With your permission I will go and greet her.”
“By all means, captain.”
Sardec glanced down at the companionway. Sergeant Hef and Corporal Toby were counting men aboard. A fair number of them were drunk. There had been a time when that would have infuriated Sardec but now he understood. These men were going away, parting from loved ones they might never see again. They did not need to march. As long as there was no misbehaviour he would turn a blind eye to the drinking, at least today. Once they were under way and in dangerous waters it would be a different thing.
Rik took Asea’s hand and helped her up the gangplank. There was little chance of her falling in, but it was best to take no chances. A broad, bearded man garbed in black greeted them. He was the captain, and he wanted to show Asea to her cabin, personally. Rik had spent enough time around the docks in Sorrow to know this was not normal behaviour, so he eyed the man suspiciously, until it became obvious he was only trying to ingratiate himself with one of the high nobility. He probably did not get a lot of chances to do that.
The cabins seemed small and spare but Asea pronounced herself perfectly satisfied, and the captain bid them farewell, and headed upstairs to supervise the push off. Asea wanted to do the same. Rik joined her.
They cast off. Sailors pulled ropes aboard. Dockers pushed the ship out into the river. Smaller wyrms pulled them out into midstream where an absolute monster half as big as the barge itself waited for them, a creature so large that it needed the water to support its own weight. It would have collapsed on land after taking only a hundred steps.
Rik watched the massive reptile nervously. A thing so huge could smash the barge to flinders if it went amok. It seemed docile enough but you never knew. Ropes were fastened to hooks on its harness and a heavy wooden yoke lade down from the bow of the barge. Its’ padded cross-piece lay on the river wyrm’s shoulders and was fastened into place by its mahouts. After the operation was complete, the captain raised his hand, a horn was blown, and they set off down the river.
Brown water bubbled along the barge’s sides. Soldiers waved to their sweethearts on the banks. Sailors blew kisses to girls. A thrill passed through him. He loved departures. Leaving places appealed to him.
He paid careful attention as they moved through the city, passing the vast swarms of small bumboats that did business on the river, going by the craft of vendors trying to sell the sailors stuff even as they departed. He watched palaces and temples and towers, massive warehouses and large taverns go by on the banks.
The river wyrm ducked its head as they passed under the arches of bridges. The structures themselves were more like streets. They had shops and houses built on them. Men sat at the base of the pillars, fishing with rods and nets, trying to catch something for supper. Once he thought he saw a corpse bobbing in the river. He doubted that anyone would want to swim on a day like today. The sky was clear and blue but the wind was cold and air and water both held a winter chill.
He felt as if someone was watching him, and turned to see that Asea’s eye was upon him. “Yes?” he said.
“You look happy,” she said. “You don’t look happy often.”
He smiled. “I have just discovered that I like leaving places.”
“I have never felt much that way myself,” she said. “Not since the Exile, not since we left Al’Terra.”
“What was it like?” he asked. “Did you have cities like this?”
At first he thought she was not going to answer. Her gaze was fixed on a point in the distance, as if she was looking at something far off in time, as well as distance.
“Bigger,” she said. “With taller towers, lit by magic, and strengthened by spells and steel so that they were tall enough to touch the clouds. Air chariots and flying ships moved between them, common as the little boats on this river.”
He could almost picture it in his eye. “Did dragons draw them?”
“No, they were powered by magic. Folk rode dragons for sport mostly, and for war.”
“Was it cold like today?” She shook her head.
“The climate was kinder on Al’ Terra, Rik. At least where I lived. It never got really cold, although near the world’s waist it could get very warm. Magic kept our palaces cool in the summer and warm in the winter. We had so much power and we did not even know it. We took it all for granted.”
“What happened? Did the Princes of Shadow steal your magic?”
“No. It was fading before ever they appeared. Afterwards some said that the failure of the great spells was a portent of their coming. I am not so sure. I sometimes think it was a coincidence. If there was a connection I think it was subtler.”
“In what way?”
“This is not the time or the place to discuss such matters, Rik.” She smiled, lovely as a girl and for a moment he forgot that she was the most powerful and terrifying sorceress he was ever likely to meet. “Ask me of something happier?”
He tried, but being put on the spot like this, his mind went blank. “Were you happy there?” he asked.
“Happier than I have ever been since we came to this world — that is a certainty. Magic was easier to work there. Even at its worst, when magic was failing, there was more power there than here.”
“I was thinking more of friends, and family.” These things had been rare in his life before he had joined the army. They were a treasure he thought he could understand, made all the more precious by their rarity.
She laughed. “I am a sorcerer, Rik. Magic is my art, my addiction, my passion. The quest for knowledge and the ability to shape tau, those were the things that drove me then, and still drive me now, even after all these centuries.”
He heard the truth of that in her voice. He envied her it as well.
“But there was all the other things as well; friends, lovers, laughter, light, joy. Children?”
A shadow passed across her face, and he thought he had perhaps been too impertinent. The smile vanished. “There were.”
There was something in the tone of her voice that told him that it would not be a good idea to ask what had happened to them. Very, very few Terrarchs indeed had made the passage to Gaeia. Only ten thousand according to scripture. Asea has been describing a city bigger than Halim, and he had read that there had been many hundreds of cities on Al’Terra.
“The Princes of Shadow took from us far more than you can know, Rik.”
“What do you mean?”
“You have the talent. Here using it is so difficult. You must sometimes draw on the life force of your own body to work spells. It kills you slowly unless you are very careful. On Al’Terra, magical energy flowed freely through the very air. You could reach out and shape it and sculpt it into wonderful things. You could heal the sick, summon creatures from other planes, build ships that flew and not worry that you might kill yourself by overdrawing on your power.”
“It sounds wonderful,” he said, and meant it. What would it be like for him to live in such a world? He resigned himself to the fact that he would never know. And it dawned on him, that given his heritage, he had lost something, a thing that he had never even known he had lost until she had told him. So much of his life seemed like that, and he resented it.
“It was wonderful.”
“Do you think you will ever go back?”
She shook her head. “I fear though that it has followed us here.”
“The Princes of Shadow?”
“Or their agents at least.” He glanced around just to be certain that no one had come within earshot since they had started their conversation.
“Lord Malkior?” he said.
“I would be very surprised if he were not one of them.”
He shivered. If she was right and Malkior was his father he had a direct lineal connection to the very lords of evil. “But there is the possibility you are wrong.”
“There is always that possibility, Rik. Only a fool thinks otherwise.”
She fell silent, studying the city as it fell away behind them. He leaned against the boat's wooden railings and did the same, content for the moment to let the world just drift by. It grew dark and Asea went below.
The night air was clear as crystal. Overhead the stars burned coldly. The chill wind bit like a blade. Rik heard footsteps behind him. Turning he saw the tall, spare figure of Lieutenant Sardec emerge. Not so long ago Sardec had ordered him whipped for infractions of regimental discipline. Now Rik’s position as Asea’s protege and rescuer of Queen Kathea, made him safe from that at least. He still carried hatred and resentment for Sardec and he was sure the Lieutenant felt the same about him, but under the circumstances there was not anything either of them could do about it. Given the dangerous nature of their mission, it might be best for them to come to terms with each other, but Rik was damned if he was going to make the first move. The business with Rena still rankled, all the more because he was certain that the officer did not even know what she had once meant to him.
Sardec noticed his glance. “Good evening,” he said politely. “I had thought I was going to be alone up here, given the cold and the hour. Everyone save the watch is asleep.”
“I like to look at the stars,” said Rik.
“Is it part of your apprenticeship?”
“Some people think you are Lady Asea’s new apprentice. They mean it as a joke, but I am starting to wonder if it is something more.”
“I have seen you making signs. I have noticed the amulets you wear.”
Sardec was quicker than he looked. “You object?”
Sardec paused for a moment, then shook his head. “What Lady Asea chooses to do is her business. And after what you did at the Serpent Tower, I think she might be right to do it.”
There was no hostility in Sardec’s voice, and not the least hint of condescension. He talked to Rik as if they were equals. Sometime, somewhere, the Lieutenant’s attitude to him had changed.
“She asked for you specifically to command her guards,” Rik said, because he could think of nothing better to say.
“I know. This will be the third time I have done so. I pray that it is more auspicious than the first.” He raised his hook meaningfully.
“You do not think that she — we — are in any danger?”
“I think she is. There is a strangeness to this war that I like not at all. It is different from the ones my father told me about.”
“More sorcery, more darkness. Of course it is possible that it was always like this, and he was merely sparing my childish feelings when he told me of his own experiences.”
Rik had never considered Sardec as a child before, but the officer was young, by Terrarch standards a mere stripling, so it could not have been all that long ago.
“You do not think there will be any attempts on her life in Harven?”
“As reprisals for what happened to Lady Tamara, you mean?”
“I was thinking more of a general threat, but that is one way of looking at it.”
“I do not know. Once I would have said no, but the world is changing. If someone could send a Nerghul, they could send anything.”
Rik nodded. Sardec turned to study the riverbanks. There was a village there at the moment. Only the fading lights of chimney fires seen through shutters illuminated the dark squat bulk of the buildings.
“I have a question,” said Sardec.
“What is it?”
“What really happened in the Serpent Tower? How did you overcome Ilmarec?”
“You would not believe me if I told you, Lieutenant.”
“Please try me.”
So Rik did, leaving out many of the darker details. He talked about the ancient Serpent Man he had found within the Tower, and the way it had helped him. He spoke of the Nerghul and how it had fought with the Tower’s defenders. He talked of his last meeting with Ilmarec and his escape with the Queen in the flying coffin. Sardec listened politely enough but Rik was not sure whether the Lieutenant believed him. In Sardec’s place, he was not sure he would have.
“I saw what happened to the Tower,” Sardec said eventually. “And I wondered how such a potent structure could be destroyed. I know now. Thank you.”
He let out a long cloudy breath. It billowed like dragon-smoke from his nostrils. “We live in an older and stranger world than we think,” he said eventually. “The Elder Races possessed powers beyond our understanding.”
“Yes, they did.”
“I pray I never witness the manifestation of such powers again. Once in one lifetime was enough for me.”
“I am with you on that, Lieutenant,” said Rik. He was cold now, and Sardec’s presence had robbed him of the solitude he had been seeking. “If you will forgive me, I would go below now.”
“By all means, Good night.”
“You look very thoughtful,” Asea said, as Rik walked into her cabin. Karim sat cross-legged in the corridor outside the door, a naked blade in his lap. Rik closed the cabin door behind him. Asea erected her privacy spell.
“I just encountered Lieutenant Sardec,” said Rik. “He treated me almost as if I was sentient.”
Asea laughed. “Sardec is not as bad as you think he is, Rik. He is just very young, very proud and he does not know himself or the world very well yet.”
“I still don’t like him.”
“In this life you will find you often have to deal with people you dislike. You’ll just have to get used to it.”
“You said you wanted to teach me this evening.”
“I do. After your encounter with your dear half-sister I have decided that I need to accelerate your training.”
“Are you going to teach me to fight like her? I would not have thought there was room in this cabin.”
“This is no joking matter, Rik. Poisons are common among the Terrarchs, many and subtle too. You need to be able to deal with them. You need to be able to heal yourself too. I am not always going to be around to patch you up after your adventures.”
Rik thought he detected a note of sadness in her voice. She sounded like a woman forced to contemplate her own mortality. He told himself he was imagining it. He could not possible judge the way one of the First thought.
“You are going to teach me healing spells?”
“First I am going to teach you how to heal yourself and how to purify your body of toxins.”
“Will I be able to heal others?” That would be a useful talent. She shook her head.
“The spells will work only for you. It is easier to stimulate your own body to heal itself than to heal others.”
“Why should that be?”
“It may be because we are innately selfish, Rik. It is easier to spend our power healing ourselves than to heal somebody else. It may just be the range is less and so less energy is lost in transmission. Like so much else about magic, Rik, there are many theories and few concrete explanations. I could spend the rest of the night explaining the theories to you, or I can show you how to do it. Which is it to be?”
“I have one more question. I will try and make it my last.”
“You told me that in this world drawing on magic drains our body, I thought magical energy came from the Deep.”
“The energy needed for most magic is immense and it is drawn from the Deep, but you still have to make contact with it, to dig the well as it were. That is what draws on our own life-force.”
“What shall we do now?”
“I have much to teach you and little time to do it in, so I must use forced learning.”
“How will you do that?”
“We will need to use drugs and mindtouch to grant you the knowledge quickly. It can be dangerous and tiring and painful but I will try to be as gentle as I can. Once the seed is planted you will have to practise by yourself to make it grow. “
“Some minds cannot accept this method of teaching. They break under the strain.”
“They go mad, you mean?”
“That’s one way of putting it.”
“Do you think…”
“I think you will be fine, Rik. You are very strong-willed. Honesty compels me to tell you that there are other reasons this method is not much used by sorcerers.”
“And what would they be?”
“You must open your mind to me. You will be vulnerable in the most terrible way possible. Most people cannot stand that either — without being forced. Their minds instinctively rebel against it.”
“You mean you can alter my thoughts, lay a geas on me.”
“Theoretically, yes. I could implant memories and compulsions as easily as knowledge.”
“But you would not.”
“I would not hesitate to do so, Rik, if there was anything to be gained by it, but it does more harm than good. A mind is a very delicate thing. Altering one memory can have terrible and unforeseen consequences.”
“You are saying you need me whole.”
“I am. And it has to be said that unless imposed with brutal and overmastering power, such compulsions rarely hold for long. The natural tendency of the mind draws it back towards its original path over the long run. Now that I have told you this, do you wish to go through with it?”
“You are giving me a choice?”
“Not much of one. I suspect that unless you get the knowledge I want to give you and quickly, you are going to die. There are many people who will want you dead before we are finished, and they have many ways of making that happen.”
“Still, you are saying that if I do not trust you, if I do not wish to learn this, you will not force me?”
Her smile was sad. “I already have, Rik, and we both know it. Not by magic either.”
Rik considered her words. There was truth in them. He needed her. And he was forced to trust her judgement. As far as he knew she had never lied to him, and if she thought his life depended on him acquiring such knowledge then it was most likely so.
“I will trust you,” he said. “Let us proceed.”
They settled down facing each other over a glowing crystal sphere. She burned opiated incense and chanted the words of the spell over and over again. As the drug took hold, the rhythm of the words drummed into his brain, regular as a heartbeat, and something inside him answered. He found himself repeating her words, and mirroring her gestures. Under the influence of the drug and the sorcery, time seemed to slow and the night lengthened to near infinity.
The narcotic loosened his mental defences, making possible a mystical connection between him and her. Knowledge flowed between them on a subtler level than words and gesture. There were times when he connected to the vast chambers of her mind, caught glimpses of the enormous store of strange knowledge there. Perhaps it was the truth. Perhaps it was hallucination. He was in no position to judge.
His vision turned inwards, and it seemed to him that the nature of his vision changed too, until he could see through his flesh to the muscle and bone and blood beneath. If he concentrated he could see the small sentinels that protected his body from disease and repaired damaged tissue. By pulsing magic through his blood and flesh he could heal it. He could expel stuff from his blood and his belly that was not supposed to be there.
Only afterwards, when his brain had recovered from the strain of all the mediations, incantations and visualisations she forced it through, did he wonder at the desperation with which she forced him to learn, as if she really believed that his life and most likely hers depended on it.
The shouts of the Foragers got Rik’s attention. He woke groggily, still dazed after yet another night of forced learning. There had been so much teaching on this trip and so many spells that he barely remembered the river voyage. After the healing spells had come spells to increase his strength and then his speed, spells to make him more perceptive, spells to let him sense the presence of magic. Asea had claimed they were all simple spells but they did not seem that way to him. He felt like he was slowly drowning in a sea of knowledge that would swamp his brain. He was tired and sick and he wanted the whole process to stop.
The shouts from above continued. He forced himself to rise and staggered up the wooden stairs onto the deck.
“Looks like we have arrived,” said Weasel, joining him at the bow of the River Dragon to get a better view. “You look like shit, by the way.”
“Lady Asea keeping you busy at night, is she? You lucky bastard,” added the Barbarian.
Rik did not want to tell them how drained and empty he felt. Strange words drifted up from his unconsciousness and he had to all but force his hands not to move through the ritual gestures associated with certain spells. He could see now the dangers this method of teaching posed. His whole brain felt bruised and his thoughts were foggy. The drugs and the rituals were taking an unholy toll. He hoped that it was all worth it.
He shaded his eyes with his hand, for the estuarine light seemed too bright, and forced himself to look in the direction in which the others were gaping. It was clear that they had indeed arrived.
Ahead of them the river widened as it met the sea. Along the banks lay a scum of cheap housing that grew more solid and respectable as it rose up the hills on either side of the river. Dozens of piers lined the water’s edge. Hundreds of boats were moored, but it was not the houses on the riverbanks that commanded the attention. In the river itself were several large islands. Towers crowded them, leaning together in places like drunk men clutching each other for support. Bridges leapt from tower to tower. Strange wooden carriages moved along pulleyways between them, sometimes spanning the gap between islands in what from a distance looked like an enormous cobweb of ropes.
Massive thick walls surrounded each island. The river itself provided a moat. Rik studied the city with a cautious eye. Each island was a fortress that could provide covering fire for every other island like the bastions of a fortified town. Tall-masted ships crowded the waters between them. Messenger birds flocked in the skies.
Asea strode on deck. She looked none the worse for their long nights of teaching. “We are early,” she said. “We must have made better time than the captain thought.”
“Maybe it just seems that way because we have been studying so hard.” Her warning look told him he had made a mistake mentioning this where others might hear. He was tired. It was not an error he would normally have made. Fortunately nobody appeared to be paying the slightest attention.
“Those islands would be almost impossible to take without a superior fleet,” said Rik.
Asea nodded. “Even with one, so long as Harven is allied with the Quan. Fortunately no one is talking about taking the city.”
“Getting ready to be diplomatic?” he asked. She nodded.
“And so should you,” she said.
“What are those islands called?”
“The nearer one — with the huge black central tower is the Island of the Sorcerers. The largest one with the white painted walls is the Island of Gold where the richest of the merchant prince’s dwell. The one furthest out is the called simply Temple although there is no temple to any god we worship on it.”
“That is where the Quan come ashore then?”
“Indeed. It is said that in the main Temple there are numerous pools connected with the sea, and that the Sea Devils emerge from those to communicate with the Intercessors, the priests who deal with them. There are other tales of human sacrifice that it would be wise not to repeat when we get to shore.”
“You’ve been here before?”
“On numerous occasions. The Book Market is famous.”
“What are the Quan like?”
“Look for yourself — down there in the water.”
Rik looked down over the wooden railing. There was something in the water, a shadowy sinister shape that made his flesh crawl. It was about the size of a man and looked as if it was of roughly human mass. There was a suggestion of a human-like head at the front but the whole body undulated bonelessly in the water, a mass of writhing tentacles streaming out behind it. Even as he watched the thing seemed to become aware it was under observation. Twisting like an eel it dived down out of sight into the murk.
“What was it doing?” Rik asked.
“I don’t know. Probably just scouting the ship. Maybe it had business of its own.”
It did not seem like a good omen to Rik but he kept the thought to himself, as he watched the massive buildings come closer. Looking beyond them, out into the estuary, he realised that for the first time in his life he was seeing the sea. A strange thrill of fear and fascination and something else passed through him and he knew with utter certainty that he was now a long, long way from home.
The River Dragon dropped anchor in the waters of Nearshore, the area of land on the bay closest to the islands. Draymen unharnessed the towing wyrm and roped smaller ones to the ship to pull them into dock. Rik’s pulse quickened as he studied the bustling wharves. He recalled the tales of the place he had heard as a youth.
Harven was one of the world’s great port cities, famously wealthy and famously corrupt. Impregnable, with the sea as its moat, and its allied monsters lurking in the waters, it went its own way in the world and paid tribute to none of the realms that surrounded it. It was a place where people went to make fortunes, where humans and Terrarchs mingled in a way that was not possible anywhere else, where money counted more than birth and the merchant was king.
Perhaps it was something else that stirred within him — ambition. As a youth, before the army and before Asea, he had sometimes dreamed of coming here and making his fortune. Death was easy to find on the streets of Harven they said, but so was gold. In another life, this place might have been his home and his testing ground. Koralyn, his first master, the man who had taught him thievery, had come from here or so he sometimes claimed, and his stories of the place had excited Rik.
He sniffed the air. It stank of money and life and something else; fish, tons of it, brought in by the hundreds of small fishing boats who trawled the Sea of Dragons, and who followed the cod far out into the Western Ocean.
He smelled bubbling fat and a sickly sweet perfume coming from a great ship that held its distance out in the harbour. Seeing the direction of his gaze Asea said; “Whaler — they hunt the great fishes and wyrms of the sea for blubber and ambergris and whalebone and other things.”
There were other ships, vast prison hulks floating half-submerged in the waters. These had featured in many of the more horrific tales he had read as a boy, with unjustly imprisoned men watching the sea roll in through the stoved-in side of the hulk, unable to escape because of the weight of the chains that bound them. Those had been particularly vivid images that the Old Witch had, for some reason, delighted to read aloud.
Ships from dozens of nations filled the harbour. Fat merchantmen from the Isles of Greed; great ocean-going galleons from the far colonies of the Lost Continent; low sleek ships of an alien design from the Midworld Sea. Enormous wyrms moved between them, towing them, bearing cargoes loaded on howdahs. Some carried important visitors. He could not recognise more than half a dozen of the hundred flags he saw here. But he resolved that given time he would. The cold winter wind cut at his cheeks like a knife. Unease, fatigue and excitement warred within his soul, clashing their swords, making his heart beat faster with their bugles.
The Barbarian bellowed and then pointed to the docks. Women and painted boys lolled amid longshoremen heaving exotic cargoes onto carts bound for the massive warehouses close by. Rik eyed those enormous structures with the calculating gaze of the professional thief. Within them lay the ransom of kings — everything from wines and whiskeys and furs, to spices and tobacco and chests of silver and gold. Those fat, fur-robed figures must be the owners and masters of such places, for he had read that, according to the sumptuary laws of Harven, only merchants and Terrarchs could wear fur.
As the ship came closer to the docks, he began to appreciate the true massiveness of those buildings. They were huge, greater by far than anything he had seen in Sorrow. It seemed like they could hold all of the world’s wealth, a significant proportion of which poured through this bustling city. He could hear voices now, the shouts of hawkers and gang-foremen, the calls of the whores, the bellowing laughter of a great fat merchant. The stench of frying food and fish, always fish, smacked his nostrils.
The soldiers looked at each other and smiled in anticipation. Most of them still had some money in their pocket from the looting of Halim, and they were going to spend it here. Sardec moved along the deck, shouting orders, trying to assert some form of discipline. Sergeant Hef and Corporal Toby assisted him. Slowly, a bit at a time, the Foragers made ready to come ashore.
The Barbarian rubbed his huge hands in glee. He had noticed some women from his frozen homeland, standing on the dockside. A Terrarch surrounded by half a dozen soldiers waited for them. Several carriages with the dragon banner of Talorea painted on them stood nearby.
“That will be Ambassador Valefor,” said Asea. “I see he got Lord Azaar’s message.”
The Talorean Embassy sat high on a hill overlooking the sea. It was a huge place, almost a palace, built around a central square. A whole wing had been prepared for Asea and her bodyguard, and as ever they spent the first few hours there setting wards, and sentry patrols. Sardec was weary enough when he finished the process of making sure all the major entrances were guarded and all the windows sealed shut.
He joined Asea, her half-breed lover and the Ambassador in one of the embassy’s many reception chambers. A fire burned in the hearth. Paintings of sea and ships and the city of Harven looked down on them from the walls. Quiet servants brought trays containing the brandy for which the city was famous.
Ambassador Valefor was short for a Terrarch. He dressed splendidly in a fur-trimmed robe. His hair and short beard were well barbered. His eyes were watchful. His tongue well-guarded. He was Sardec’s distant kinsman on his mother’s side but he could see that the Ambassador did not expect to be pressed for favours on that account.
After they had all sipped the brandy, and sampled the tiny flakes of salted fish on thick coarse bread, a local delicacy, the Ambassador spoke to Asea. “I am delighted you could come. The Council will be delighted.”
Sardec listened to the well-layered flattery and took another slight sip of the brandy to hide his distaste. The flavour of cherries was in it, and the warmth of the summer sun.
“I am pleased that you are taking that attitude,” replied Asea, just as smoothly. “I also appreciate the dossiers you have prepared for me. I am hoping that you will be able to provide me with a precis of what is going on here. Your own impressions and the general feeling of the time that doubtless your agents have provided you with.”
She was doubtless only double-checking. Asea would have her own network of agents in place. She had the time and the money and intelligence was more important to the old Terrarch houses than gold.
“There is a not a great deal I can tell you that is not already in the reports, but I will do my best. I must say that in all my years here in Harven I have never known the city to be so a-buzz.”
“In what way?”
“The war has everybody stirred up, Milady. All the Merchant Princes sense great profits to be made, and all of them want their share. More than that. all of them want to be on the winning side — and who can blame them?”
It occurred to Sardec that Valefor had perhaps been in the city too long. He sounded a little too mercantile himself for the Lieutenant’s liking.
If Asea shared his qualms she gave no sign. “I have little doubt that they will make a profit supplying both sides and keeping the gates of trade between the Realm and the Empire open as they always do.”
“Wealth flows no matter what,” said Valefor, quoting an old Harvenian proverb. “This is the first war between the Great Powers in over a century. People are apprehensive. There are stories that even the Quan are.”
“Who says this?”
“Everyone, Milady. The truth is that they have been far more active recently than they normally are. They watch every ship that arrives. Hundreds come and go in Temple. Many, many thralls and slaves have been bought for…negotiating purposes.”
“The Council still continues with its abominable practises then,” said Asea.
“It is the price of the Sea Mother’s protection, Milady. They would pay it a thousand times over if they had to.”
“In truth, I do not doubt that we would do the same.” Once Asea’s words would have shocked Sardec. To treat in the flesh and souls of humans would have seemed to him the height of dishonour. Now he knew that his ideas would be considered naive by older and wiser heads. There was not a single high-ranking advisor to the Queen who would not cheerfully pay any price the Sea Devils asked if they could gain their alliance. A horrible thought occurred to him. Was that why Asea was here?
“Any word on Lord Malkior?” Asea asked.
“He is here, Milady, and I think you will meet him soon. He is a favourite at the Chambers of the Council and in the palaces of the wealthy. He will be at the reception that the Council will hold to mark your arrival, I am sure.”
“And what does he do here, Lord Valefor?”
“He offers bribes and concessions to the great. He dangles offers of contracts and exclusive trading rights before the Councilmen as an angler dangles bait. He flatters the men and compliments the women.”
“In short he is the same as he ever was.”
“You know him as well as I, Milady. I concur with your opinion.”
“Are there those he seems to particularly favour?”
“Councillors Rengalt, Malarius and Draaven all appear to be his close personal friends, but that might well be simple camouflage. He talks to all, and all talk to him. I would not draw any conclusions about who his friends and enemies are from the amount of time they spend together.”
“Do you have more concrete information?”
“There are contracts going to certain houses. The Empress is showing certain people favour.”
“This is not gossip.”
“Our agents have seen the contracts. In several cases I have copies of their exact wording.”
“Good work, Lord Valefor, I am impressed.” This praise from one of the First obviously affected the diplomat, despite his self-control. His chest puffed a little and a small smile quirked the corner of his mouth. Asea said: “What do you think he hopes to gain here?”
“You jest, Milady. He seeks to get Harven to break its long-standing policy of neutrality and side with Sardea in the coming war.”
“Do you think that is likely?”
“If you had asked me the question a year or two ago, I would have said it was impossible. But things have changed.”
Asea nodded as if he were merely confirming something she already knew. “In what way?”
“Harven is afraid, Milady. It fears Talorean ambition. Since the intervention in Kharadrea, I believe the Councillors think the balance of power has tipped too far in our favour.”
“Surely the Council does not fear us? Harven is safe behind its sea walls. Its allies make it invincible.”
“There are rumours of trouble with the Quan, Milady.”
Asea looked at him sharply. “Rumours?”
“Since the destruction of the Serpent Tower messengers have passed daily, sometimes hourly, between the Council and the City Below.”
“Why has it stirred the Quan?”
“All I know is that my spies believe the destruction of the Tower upset the Sea Devils a great deal. I do not know why — by all accounts the Quan and the Serpent Men were hereditary enemies. They fought against each other in the Elder Wars.”
A thrill passed through Sardec. Perhaps he had just been given a clue as to why the Dark Empire had not intervened as strongly as it might have done in Kharadrea this summer. The Serpent Tower was supposed to be indestructible and yet it had been destroyed. And Asea had been present.
Perhaps the Quan feared she had bound some new demon, developed some new sorcery. Perhaps the Sardeans did too. And perhaps she had…it was not impossible the half-breed had lied to him about what happened within the Tower. The destruction of the wizard Ilmarec and his home had seemed a blessing at the time, but now it looked like it had had unexpected consequences. It seemed like the disappearance of the prime artefact of their ancient enemies had frightened the Quan. Perhaps they would force the Council to side with the Sardeans. If they did, this could have had very deadly consequences for the woman he was protecting and for his men.
“Why was this not mentioned in dispatches?” he asked coldly. Valefor and Asea stared at him as they would have at a child who spoke out of turn.
“It was all merely conjecture and rumour. Only recently had it become clear what the fuss was about,” said Valefor. Another and more sinister interpretation struck Sardec but he kept it to himself. Valefor might have been paid off. He might have let Asea come here deliberately so that she could be captured. If that was so, their security here was compromised. He would have to discuss this with her and soon.
“Your suspicions are interesting ones, Lieutenant,” said Asea. They sat on the couches in her apartment. More pictures of the sea and ships covered the walls. While not quite as impressive as the Palace in Halim, their accommodation was certainly still luxurious.
Rik could see that there was something to Sardec’s logic. He would never have thought of this himself without having it pointed out to him, but once it was…
And it could be as dangerous for him as it was for Asea. After all, he had been her agent in the Serpent Tower affair and if anyone wanted to find out about it, he would make a far easier target than she, and one whose disappearance would be far less likely to cause a diplomatic incident.
Had she known about this? Was that the reason for all this training and her sudden concern for his health? He could not tell by looking at her smoothly beautiful face.
“Interesting is not the word, I would have chosen, Milady,” said Sardec. The corners of his mouth turned down sourly. He looked older, Rik realised. Responsibility pressed down on him.
“No doubt, Lieutenant, but what do you propose I do about it? I can hardly leave before talking to the Council. If your suspicions are correct, they would most likely not let me go anyway.”
“We should at least investigate possible ways of getting clear of the city. Talk to ship masters, see if there is any safe way out.”
“If things lie as you think they do, our heads are already in the dragon’s mouth. The Council will hear of any attempts we make to hire a ship — their agents are thorough and efficient, and there are few other ways out of the city. The Salt Marshes surround the city. They are a mass of monster-haunted bogs. Swamp fever strikes almost everyone who goes through them. Another reason why this city has never been successfully besieged.”
“We should do something, Milady.”
“Indeed we should. I will have the embassy people look into it.”
“I am not entirely sure I trust Lord Valefor, Milady. It seems to me that he could have warned you of this matter before you arrived, rather than letting you walk headlong into a trap.” Rik stifled a smile. Sardec was no longer as green as he once had been. That suspicion was one worthy of a Sorrow gang-lord.
“As yet we do not know whether there is a trap, Lieutenant.”
“I stand corrected. Shall we say a possible trap?”
“We shall. Is there anything else, Lieutenant?”
“The wards are in place?”
“They are functioning perfectly. The embassy was well warded before we came, and it is doubly well protected now.”
“I am thankful for that. I would prefer not to have a repeat of what happened to Lord Elakar happen on my watch.”
“I think you will find we are in agreement, Lieutenant.” Asea smiled sweetly. She did not appear to be taking Sardec’s suspicions too seriously. He made a gesture of frustration with his hook.
“Then with your permission, Milady, I will withdraw and make sure our sentries are not asleep at their posts.”
“You may go, Lieutenant Sardec, and believe me I appreciate your concern.” Sardec bowed and left. Once he was gone Rik said; “You don’t seem to think much of Sardec’s suspicions.”
“On the contrary, Rik, I think the Lieutenant is most likely correct.”
“You seem very cheerful for someone who may soon be fed to the squids.”
“There is not a great deal I can do about these things, Rik. I will deal with them when I have to. At the moment I have other business. I must deal with Lord Malkior.” The haunted look had appeared in her eyes once more. It set Rik’s nerves a-jangle.
“Your obsession with him may cost us all our lives, Milady. I must say that though you punish me for it.”
To his surprise she laughed. “Rik, the only thing I would punish you for is dishonesty. You must speak your mind to me about these things — in private. Even the cleverest of us can make mistakes — I often have.”
“You don’t think it was a mistake coming here, with the Quan so upset about the destruction of the Tower?”
“It may well have been, Rik, but we must make the best of the situation now. And so your lessons must continue.”
He suppressed a groan. Inwardly he wandered whether all the sorcerous drugs might not be affecting her judgement as much as his.
The vast tower loomed over the small boat. It was not as large as the Serpent Tower had been and it did not have quite the same air of ageless might and impregnable strength as Ilmarec’s green-walled home, yet to Rik’s eye there was something similar about the two buildings.
Perhaps it just seemed strong and stable when compared to the changeability of the grey sea and cloudy sky. Or maybe it was the way it made the small, luxurious barge they rode on seem like a woodchip afloat on a pond. The Tower of Sorcerers over-awed Rik with its strength. Here was a place you could enter and never come out.
To distract himself, he studied the waters around them. The harbour was full of ships, lit by lanterns powered by oil and sorcery. As he passed close he could see that many of those ships were homes. Entire families dwelled on them. Washing hung from the spars and rigging. Some craft were taverns, some were brothels, some were restaurants where parties of people ate. There was a second city floating out here, home to tens of thousands, a wooden slum with its foundations in water.
On the far side of the harbour green lights illuminated the huge, sinister prison hulks. They lay partially submerged in the water like dying river wyrms, seeming barely able to keep their superstructures aloft. Rik shuddered and looked away. Those were the prisons of this city, and he had a healthy fear of any sort of prison anywhere.
The collar of Rik’s dress tunic felt tight. His head felt fuzzy from all the late nights of forced learning. Sardec, garbed in a full formal uniform, looked just as uncomfortable as he, although perhaps it was the motion of the ship that upset him.
What was the difference between the sea and the river he wondered that one could make you feel nauseous and the other did not? Rik knew that some of the soldiers were affected. For many of them, pleasure boat rides around the harbour had turned into theatres of misery. He counted himself fortunate that he seemed immune to sea-sickness.
The Barbarian stood on the deck nearby along with Weasel and a few of the other Foragers. It was their job to see that Asea arrived at the Council’s reception safely. Apparently a little light piracy had been known to happen even in the harbour. The possibility of robbery seemed a universal constant wherever you went.
Rik was not sorry when the boat tied up and they made their way up the stone steps carved from the living rock of the island, towards the Great Tower. He even felt a thrill of anticipation. Tonight, he was going to meet Lord Malkior, the Terrarch who was possibly the murderer of his mother, and possibly his father.
The buzz of conversation increased as the Talorean party entered the chamber. It was high-vaulted, like a cathedral. Massive carved wooden statues, the figureheads of long-salvaged merchantmen lined the high alcoves. Between them hung the banner of Harven, a black squid on a blue background. In each tentacle it clutched a flag or a treasure chest or a sword. Doubtless there was a symbolism to it that Asea would have no trouble explaining. He could almost hear her voice in its lecturing mode: the Harvenites would be insulted at him calling the beast a squid. This was the Great Kraken of Quan, their legendary patron and protector, the mother of all Sea Devils.
At the far end of the hall where the altar would have been in a cathedral was a full-sized ship, a small trading caravel which Rik knew was the legendary Golden Morning, the first trader to have anchored in this harbour, the ship of the city’s founder Lord Harven, the Terrarch who had made the pact with the Quan.
The great hall was cold and damp. It was no wonder all the merchants wore fur, and hardly surprising that their hair and beards were long and plaited. The thick gowns the women wore made even the thinnest of them seem somewhat dumpy. The most surprising thing was that the number of humans and the number of Terrarchs present seemed almost equal, and they did not seem at all uncomfortable talking to each other. Certainly, the Terrarchs kept mostly to themselves on one side of the huge chamber, and the humans milled around on the other, but there was no sense of stifling hierarchy that you felt at such a gathering in Talorea. There the only humans you were likely to see were servants. There were some things that he liked about the place.
He studied the crowd even as it studied him. There were hundreds of wealthy men and women present, all robed in furs, and bearing long curved swords. There were a number of masked Terrarchs, sorcerers judging by the Elder Signs woven on their long flowing robes, and the winged staffs they carried. There were even a few humans garbed in a similar manner. They seemed squat and graceless compared to the Terrarchs but the fact that they were here at all astonished Rik. For a human to practise magic was a crime punishable by torture and death on most of the Ascalean continent.
There were other Terrarchs, garbed far more richly than any he had seen, rings glittering on their fingers, gold chains dripping from their necks. These were the legendary merchant princes of Harven. Their glances were cold, their smiles merry. Rik fixed a smile on his own face, and saw that Asea had done the same.
The introductions began, a roll-call of the rich and powerful of the city, human and Terrarch. They went on for a very long time and then suddenly Rik found himself bowing to Lord Malkior.
Malkior still looked like his portrait. He wore a deep purple tunic and dress britches instead of armour but Rik could tell this was the Terrarch in the painting. The artist had accentuated the leanness and good looks, the aggressive intelligent gaze. He had glossed over the scars and the mole on the chin and missed out the warm smile completely. The painting caught the aura of power that hung over Malkior but not the ease and friendliness that went with it. Rik looked at the Terrarch, hoping that the surge of interest and dislike that he felt was not immediately obvious to everyone.
Malkior bowed to Asea and kissed her hand. He showed no tension despite the fact that their nations were at war. She responded easily, and although Rik knew with certainty that she hated, feared and loathed the Sardean, he would never have guessed it from her expression. She looked delighted by his attention. Rik had long ago learned that while the face might lie, body language did not, and yet he could detect none of the subtle signs of animosity he would have expected to see in the way she moved or held herself. It would seem that Asea had mastered the art of concealing even those. It was a thing worth being reminded of. His patron was an extremely gifted liar.
“So you are the hero of the Serpent Tower,” said Malkior as they bowed to each other.
“Hero is too strong a word,” said Rik. He had to force himself to keep his tone casual. Was this Terrarch his father? Had he really killed his mother? Rik wanted to grab Malkior by his furred collar and slap some answers from him. He forced his shoulders to untense, and his hands to relax. It would not do to assault a high noble of Sardea at this reception, much as he might like to.
“I know many people who are simply dying to talk to you about it.” Rik smiled at the man, wondering what was going on behind those kind brown eyes. If Sardec’s suspicions were correct, Malkior’s statement held at least one double meaning.
“Perhaps you can introduce us, and I will do what I can to aid their understanding.”
“That’s a very generous offer, and I am sure I will take you up on it.” Malkior’s words seemed perfectly sincere, and yet Rik felt as if he had just been subtly threatened. He told himself it was his imagination, but he was sure that it was not.
Malkior smiled. “My daughter speaks very highly of you.”
“You have talked to her recently?”
“Before she went to Halim.”
“You have heard from her since the robbery? You have had a letter, perhaps?”
“I have,” said Malkior easily. “And I would like to thank you, Lady Asea for taking such an interest in the case.”
“It disturbs me that I could not find out anything,” said Asea. “It was almost like the Shadowblood were involved.”
“Come now, my dear, let us talk of more pleasant things. We left such darkness behind us on Al’Terra.”
Asea looked at him and smiled very coldly. “I have my doubts about that,” she said.
Malkior raised an eyebrow. “If you have suspicions, I must take them very seriously. Perhaps we should talk about them in a more private place.”
“I look forward to it,” said Asea. “We have much to discuss.”
“We can talk about that in private. Did you know that Rik hails from Sorrow? A city with which you are more than a little familiar.” A subtle, mask-like quality came over Malkior’s face. Or was that Rik’s imagination?
“The last time I was there must be twenty years ago…”
“Nineteen. Just before Rik here was born. Just after too.”
Malkior inclined his head and studied Rik with more care than he had before. “It’s a small world,” he said.
“His mother was murdered, you know. In quite a spectacular fashion.”
Malkior looked at her now. If he was getting Asea’s message, he gave no sign. “I am sure the subject must be more than a little distasteful to our young friend here.”
“He’s not entirely an orphan. I have spent considerable effort locating his father, and I think I may have found him.” Rik felt oddly embarrassed and uncomfortable. The way they were talking made him feel like an object, a thing that was not there. He wanted to tell them both to stop it, but kept his mouth firmly shut and his attention focused.
“As always, the depth of your philanthropy is a source of astonishment to me, my Lady.”
“Thanatomantic rituals were involved in his mother’s death.”
“Harven is a place tolerant to sorcery, but I would not say things like that too loudly even here, Asea.”
“I am sorry if you find the subject distasteful.”
“Just because there is no Inquisition here does not mean there are no prejudices. I am concerned for your safety. Even in Harven there are some…zealots… who object to these matters being even mentioned. Secret brotherhoods are everywhere, as I am sure you are aware. Some of them have great power.”
“I believe the Terrarch who killed Rik’s mother perpetrated other atrocities.”
“Fascinating. You must let me know when you catch up with him.”
“You will be the first to know when I do.”
“I look forward to that day. Now I must not monopolise your time,” he said. “I can see that there others here simply dying to have a chat with you.”
They smiled like old friends, bowed and parted. “You came a long way to have that conversation, didn’t you?” said Rik softly.
“You have no idea how far, Rik,” Asea replied. He thought he noticed some strain in her voice, even if none appeared on her face.
There was eating. There was music. There was conversation. The whole time Rik felt as if he were under observation, in some subtle inhuman way. He felt as if someone was looking at him, but every time he turned to see, there was no one there.
A steady flow of the very wealthy and very powerful, both Terrarch and human, drifted into Asea’s orbit all evening. They were curious and they wanted to talk. Rik sensed that the merchant princes were unsettled. There was at once aggression and deference in the way they spoke to Asea, as if they both resented and feared her. Rik began to fear for her. It was clear that the Councillors of Harven were far more used to causing fear than suffering it. They obviously resented anyone capable of making them afraid, and the resentment of the powerful was something to be scared of.
If any of this made any impression on Asea, she gave no sign of it. She smiled pleasantly and made small talk, accepted and offered invitations, listened to gossip, asked about trade, engaged in conversations about the minutiae of small points of sorcery, spoke of the siege of Halim easily, fluently and well. She looked stunning in her furs and her evening gown. Her be-gemmed Elder Signs looked like jewellery. Her smile was warm and friendly, and more than once he saw speculative, resentful, envious looks aimed in his direction. Obviously the tale that he was her lover had circulated here.
Not for the first time he wondered what it would be like if that were true. What would it be like to bed his patron? Interesting, was his suspicion, but he was unlikely ever to find out the answer, nor did he want to. The difference in power in their relationship did nothing for his sexual appetite. Quite the contrary, it diminished it. It came to him in a sudden flash of insight that he actually preferred it that way. His relationships with women, the intimate ones with Sabena, and with Rena, had been unhappy, tormenting things that had caused him a great deal of pain. He was not ready to entangle himself again. Whatever the strangeness of his relationship with the sorceress, he was comfortable with it. He felt threatened by Asea on many levels, but the fear of intimacy was not one of those levels. The possibility of it simply did not arise.
As he watched Asea closely, he noticed one thing. Her answers always appeared open, sincere and complete, except when she was asked about what had happened at the Serpent Tower. These questions she parried easily, dismissed and deflected in such a way that no one could take any offence. The more she avoided the subject, the more curious people became. It was undoubtedly a question that a great deal of those present took a great interest in.
Rik found himself facing a small, squat, white-haired man, in fur-trimmed sorcerer’s robes. His ugly face was lined. His eyes twinkled benevolently, and he had a smile that would have put the most suspicious Sorrow street thief at ease. Rik raised his guard instantly.
“I envy you,” said the man. His smile widened a trifle. Rik found himself disliking the stranger and trusting him even less.
The man gestured in the direction of Asea, caught Rik’s glance, laughed and shrugged. “I don’t mean like that. I am too old to be smitten by beauty although she certainly has it in abundance. I mean I envy you your chance to talk to her.”
Rik thought he understood. “You are a sorcerer.”
The man nodded as if he approved of Rik’s perceptiveness. “And she is the sorceress of all sorceresses. I have many questions she could answer if she had a mind.”
“Why don’t you ask her them?” The man touched his forehead and then his heart. It was a quick gesture that must have had some significance unknown to Rik. “As you may have noticed I am a human, and the First do not share their secrets with humans.”
Rik almost said that he was in a position to know differently but stopped himself. It was probably exactly what this man wanted to know. He was clever and he was oblique. The fact that he was talking to Rik while most present concentrated on Asea showed that.
“I did not catch your name,” Rik said.
“I am Alaryn.”
“I am Rik — pleased to make your acquaintance. I must confess I was surprised by the number of human sorcerers present this evening.”
“Harven has always been a safe haven for us against the prejudices of the masses, and dare I say it, the feudal aristocracy. The Quan prefer to deal with us, and so we have always enjoyed their protection.”
“Why is that?”
“There were human priests who dealt with them before the coming of the Terrarchs. Many of us have a greater knowledge of the old rituals, and less prejudice against the habits of the Elder Race.”
“You do not fear madness? Forgive me but I have always been told that humans were not made for sorcery.”
Alaryn smiled. “I mean no offence but perhaps you should ask yourself who benefits from putting that interpretation on affairs.”
“You are saying that it is one way the Terrarchs keep humans in their place. I have heard that said before, but I have also seen human sorcerers go mad.” It had happened to the Old Witch in Sorrow, and many of the other dabblers in the Thieves Quarter.
“You have lived an interesting life. Many weaker minds are smashed by using the Art and the Power, and in this, alas, humans are significantly weaker than the Terrarchs. That does not mean madness is inevitable. If the proper precautions are taken, and the proper rituals are observed, and if a human does not attempt to fly too high or draw on powers beyond his capabilities, he can live a relatively normal life and even become prosperous.” Alaryn tapped his chest significantly. He certainly sounded sane enough. “And I flatter myself that there are areas in which we have even greater gifts than the Terrarchs.”
“You interest me,” said Rik. “In what areas would those be?”
“Dealing with the Elder Races would be the obvious place to start.” Rik looked closer and noticed the Kraken image that dangled from the man’s neck. He had taken it for an Elder Sign at first, but now he knew it was something else.
Rik thought of Zarahel, the priest of Uran Ultar — he had been a human, and he had summoned a demon god. This did not seem to be the time of the place to discuss things however. Instead he said; “It is said that there were human sorcerers in ancient times before the coming of the Terrarchs.”
“They made the mistake of fighting against the Conquest. That may be why so many of them were cleansed.”
Even in liberal Talorea that was not a thought a human would have spoken out loud where a Terrarch might hear. Things really were different here.
“You do not have the Inquisition here in Harven?”
“The Quan would not allow it. We practise tolerance. It is good for trade.”
Rik felt as if he was missing something here. Were the gestures Alaryn kept making those associated with one of the Brotherhoods, those ancient secret societies that still lurked in the shadows of civilisation? Some were cults dedicated to ancient demon gods, others, it was said, to the pursuit of knowledge and equality between human and Terrarch. Still others were arms of foreign policy of the Dark Empire.
“The Quan enjoy a great deal of power here.”
“Say rather influence. They need us. We need them. Always we seek accommodation, and to keep the other party happy. That too is good for trade.”
“I can understand how the city needs the Elder Race. What I do not understand is what they get from you.”
“We provide them with raw material they cannot get for themselves. We act as their intermediaries on the surface.”
Rik thought of the darker tales he had heard, of human sacrifice and the devouring of souls. It seemed undiplomatic to mention them. “Have you ever seen one, a Quan I mean?” he said, to fill the gap in the conversation.
“I am an Intercessor. I have talked with them. I have swum with them. I have visited their city.”
“Is that possible?”
“There are magical engines that make it possible — great bubbles propelled by magic that let a man pass through the water.”
“Bubbles — would they not burst?”
“They are not like air bubbles in water, more like translucent integuments spun by the Quan.”
“I would not have thought they could hold enough air.”
“By strange alchemy, the integument extracts it from the water. I confess I do not know exactly how.”
“That is mighty and wonderful magic.”
“The Terrarchs are not the only source of powerful sorcery in this world, friend Rik. It is something to keep in mind on your travels.” Alaryn smiled and Rik wondered whether he had just been given a subtle warning. Was he supposed to carry this tale to Asea, or to think about it himself?
“I have heard that the Quan are very agitated these days.”
“You are well informed for a newcomer to the city. Indeed they are. Recent developments on the surface have upset them greatly. I believe you yourself had some involvement in them.”
“The destruction of the Serpent Tower, you mean?” Rik felt as if they had suddenly reached the point that Alaryn had been trying to get to all along.
“The very same.”
“Why is that of interest to them? The Tower was a long way from the sea.”
“The Tower was the mightiest citadel of an Elder Race left on the surface of our world, or so I am told.” He paused, giving Rik time to wonder exactly who had told him. “Of course, its destruction is of interest to the Quan. At the height of their power, a long time ago, it was something the Quan would have struggled to achieve, and yet you and your mistress somehow managed it…”
He paused, and his silence was an invitation for Rik to pick up the thread of the conversation. Instinct and training warned him against it. As a young thief in the streets of Sorrow he had learned that information was a commodity of great value to the right people, and the secret of what had happened in the Serpent Tower was obviously of interest to many people in this city of merchants. He decided to test the water.
“I would imagine the information about how that happened might be worth a great deal to the right people.”
“You imagine correctly, Rik. It is of enormous value. There are people who would kill to acquire it.” Almost by accident his gaze rested on Lord Malkior. The Sardean stood amid a group of Terrarch merchants, who all laughed at some jest of his. Almost as if he sensed them looking at him, he turned and his gaze met Rik’s. He raised his glass in a mocking toast and returned to his conversation.
“A most dangerous Terrarch,” said Alaryn. “They say he has the ear of the Queen Empress.”
“What brings him here at this particular time?”
“He is buying influence on the Council, trying to get it to take the Sardean side in your war.”
“Do you think he will succeed?”
Alaryn smiled. “I would say that too is information that would be of great value to the right people.”
“I am sure you are correct.”
“The world is changing, Rik. When the world changes, policy must change too. That is a maxim that we live by here. We all must.”
Sardec found himself standing with a Terrarch even more gaudily garbed than the local merchants. The insignia on his epaulettes marked him as being from the island realm of Selenea, part of its navy, he would have guessed.
“An interesting party,” Sardec said politely.
The Selenean surveyed the gathering coldly. “Smells of fish,” he said eventually.
He had the high Terrarch’s contempt for trade, which was odd, since his homeland was famously a place of traders. Sardec’s father had always told him the Selenean Terrarchs were funny that way, claiming to despise trade even as they took the vast majority of their revenues from it. He had never particularly cared for the Seleneans despite the fact they were traditional Talorean allies against the Valonians to the West.
“You are not enjoying this?”
“My dear Lieutenant, I have not enjoyed a single moment since I first set foot in this barbarous place three years ago.”
“Your patience in enduring such suffering is admirable.” Sardec allowed a hint of mockery to show in his voice. The Selenean’s smile said that he got the joke and did not mind the mockery.
“When Queen and country call, what else can one do? I can see you are a Terrarch who understands the meaning of duty.” His gaze lingered on Sardec’s hook. Sardec noticed that the speaker’s sleeve was empty. It looked like he too had taken his share of wounds in the name of duty.
“A pleasure to make your acquaintance,” said the stranger bowing. “I am Laevin, Captain in the service of her majesty, Selena, Moon Queen of Selenea.”
Sardec introduced himself.
“You are the commander of First Asea’s bodyguard,” said Laevin. It was not a question.
“I have that honour.”
“I would be very careful if I were you. Things are very strange here at the moment.” Sardec was inclined to take that statement very seriously. “Lord Malkior is spending a lot of money and making a lot of promises to swing the Harvenites over to the Sardeans.”
That must worry for the Seleneans. If the Harvenites and their Elder World allies turned against Talorea, they would turn against her allies too. Selenea was an island, and a mighty naval power, but her fleets would be at risk from the Sea Devils. Facing such a threat, they might even remain neutral or switch sides themselves.
“Do you think he will succeed?”
“If he offers enough money, he might swing the vote of the Council. Normally you could rely on the Quan to make sure the merchants behaved sensibly, but something has them damnably stirred up. They have even been talking with Malkior, you know.”
Sardec gave Laevin a second look. “How do you know that?”
“I have my ways,” he said. “I am the Ambassador’s military advisor.”
Such a post was often a cover for a spymaster. “Why are you telling me this?”
“I have judged it in the best interests of my Queen to tell you. I suspect you may not have learned it from sources that should have informed you.”
Sardec narrowed his eyes. This was tantamount to an accusation that Ambassador Valefor had wilfully not told them what they needed to know. Of course, Laevin was not going to come right out and say such a thing, but then again he did not have to. Sardec’s sense of having put his head into the jaws of a trap increased.
“You think Lady Asea may be in danger.”
“I am certain she is.”
“What would you advise?”
“Do not try to get out of the city by ship. They can have accidents, if the Quan have taken against you.”
“You think that has happened.”
“Let us say I would not rely on it not being the case.”
“You are taking a risk telling me this.”
“I have been instructed to do so by my superiors. They fear the consequences of an alliance between Sardea and the Quan.”
“They are right to do so.” Such an alliance would have control of the northern seas. Whole armies could be moved by ship. Harven would provide a near impregnable base in Northern Kharadrea from which the Dark Empire could sally forth and lay claim to the country. It could even be used as a staging post for an amphibious assault on Talorea itself. The balance of power on the continent would indeed change if the Quan could be persuaded to take sides. Sardec felt out of his depth here. He told himself that such things were not his responsibility. All he had to do was see to Asea’s safety. Even that duty seemed fraught with complications.
“I am glad you take me meaning, Lieutenant. I wish you a safe and uneventful stay in Harven, though I fear you may not have it.”
They stood on the docks waiting for their boat to take them back to Nearshore.
“That was an interesting party,” said Sardec, glancing around, making sure all the men were in position. He had arranged them around Asea, blocking any clear shot someone might be able to get at her.
“Indeed,” said Asea. “I noticed you were talking to the Selenean attache.”
“He had a number of interesting things to say.” Sardec noticed the half-breed had his eyes fixed on the harbour waters. It took him but a moment to understand why. In the depths of the harbour faintly greenish translucent shapes moved, a combination of man and squid and something else. It sometimes seemed to Sardec that they held struggling humanoid shapes between them, but he told himself that could not be so.
They clambered aboard their boat and pushed off. “I am glad to be leaving this place,” said Rik.
“I will be glad to leave this city,” said Sardec.
“Let us hope we have the chance,” said Asea so softly that Sardec was sure that only he and the half-breed had heard it. So she too suspected the way things were going.
The next morning Rik joined Sardec and Asea for breakfast in her suite. He noticed at once that Ambassador Valefor had not been invited, that silence wards were in place and Karim stood outside the door looking at his most forbidding. Weasel and the Barbarian guarded the way into the wing.
“Things are not quite as I expected,” said Asea. Rik raised an eyebrow at her understatement.
“Your diplomatic mission is not going as well as we might hope?” said Sardec. Something in his tone told Rik that he was hardly surprised. He was starting to suspect the Lieutenant of having a sardonic sense of humour.
“It is worse than I had imagined. My networks here have been compromised.”
Rik helped himself to some bread and conserve. He poured himself some tea since there were no servants present there to do so.
“You are saying we have walked into a trap?” said Rik.
“I am saying I have led us into a trap. I know that there is much going on here that I should have been told about and was not. This suggests a counter-intelligence operation of extraordinary thoroughness.”
“That is not reassuring,” said Rik. “You have a plan?”
“We should explore lines of retreat from the city.”
“I was warned last night not to attempt to do so by ship. If we do we may have an accident. The Quan control the sea.”
“Who told you that?”
“Laevin, the Selenean naval attache.”
“That might have been an attempt to intimidate us.”
“I think he was sincere.”
“He might have been fed false information. I have been.”
“You think that likely?”
“No. I am merely being cautious.”
“You think we should attempt to book passage out?”
“This is Harven. There are not many ways out, unless you plan on walking through the swamps.”
“Even for that we would need boats.”
“Quite.” Asea sounded a little testy. Rik had never seen her like this before.
“Why are you in this mood?” he asked. She stared at him for a moment.
“I have a feeling that my mission here has already failed, that most of the Council side with Sardea, and that the Quan do as well.”
“What makes you think that?”
“The tone of the conversations I had last night.”
“Lord Malkior certainly seems a persuasive Terrarch,” said Sardec.
“Sardean gold may have proved more persuasive.”
“There’s more to it than that, though, isn’t there?” said Rik.
“Yes. Malkior has been dealing with the Quan for some time now.”
“A sorcerer named Alaryn told me as much last night,” said Rik. She looked interested.
“They seemed to have turned against Talorea all of a sudden.”
“I think I can guess why,” said Asea.
“The Serpent Tower,” said Rik. “That’s what I was told. They think we had something to do with its destruction.”
“We did. At least you did.”
“That’s not what I mean — they suspect the use of some magic or some spell on our part.”
“If we had that power they would have cause to fear us, and more cause yet to do a deal with us.” Rik saw the logic of that. He turned it over in his mind. If the Quan feared them so much why not side with Talorea, why support Talorea’s enemies?
“Perhaps they feel they have the means to deal with us,” suggested Sardec. “Perhaps they would rather the weaker of the two sides came out on top. It would strengthen their position.”
“That may be so,” said Asea. “But the Quan are aliens. We cannot understand how their minds work, and we don’t have one here now to question. I think we might be safest in assuming that they are against us, and make our plans accordingly.”
“And what should those plans be?”
“We should find a way out of the city. In the meantime we should proceed as if we suspect nothing is amiss. We do not want to provoke our enemies to move against us. While they feel we are in their power, they might stay their hands. I will instruct Ambassador Valefor to begin looking for a ship. We can always claim to be summoned back unexpectedly.”
“Laevin also suggested that Valefor might be less than reliable.”
“That is why he is not here this morning,” said Asea.
“I think I would like to scout out the city,” said Rik. “Get my ear the ground. See what I can find out.” What he really meant was that he might be able to arrange for his own disappearance and escape, or that of a few friends, like Weasel and the Barbarian. He would have liked to be able to do it for Asea as well but he could not see how that was possible. She was too noticeable. On the other hand, she was also a sorceress. She might have ways of concealing herself. Tamara certainly had.
One thing was sure; he was not going to rely on Ambassador Valefor to get them out of this.
Snow fell on the narrow streets but it did nothing to stop the bustling commercial activity. Vendors hawked grilled fish and hot chestnuts. Well-wrapped street girls touted for custom. Shoppers drifted through the arcades haggling with merchants. Rik felt as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders. He was dressed in ragged clothes such as he might have worn in Sorrow. Wooden clogs kept the mud from his feet. A heavy patched cloak kept him warm. He had not had to endure another night of forced learning. Asea had insisted on sleep as soon as they had returned. She had seemed quite dispirited.
He was alone, in a new city, with money in his pocket, a knife up one sleeve and a small pistol up the other. He had a lot to lose and a lot to fear but just for a moment he could pretend he was nothing but a Sorrow street thief once more. The world had seemed a whole lot simpler then.
The buildings here were different from his home city or the decaying monstrosities of Halim. The tenements were taller, and arches of wood and iron ran between them. Bridges of wood and stone leapt the small streams and canals. There were bridges everywhere. The Harvenites seemed obsessed by them. The air was sharp and smelled of the sea.
From force of habit he moved through the maze of streets, keeping an eye open for trouble, looking for the opportunities he would once have needed to seize in order to live. There was a purse he might have lifted if he was quick enough. Its owner was a wealthy merchant haggling with a vendor for some spices, his bodyguards seemingly immersed in staring at a girl across the way. It was such an easy dip that Rik’s instinct for self-protection tingled. Looking around he saw that two more men watched from an archway on the far side of the street. They were quick, sharp men too and he would not have wanted to take his chances fleeing from them.
One of them noticed Rik looking at him, and grinned menacingly. Rik kept walking past stalls and booths around which crates were piled high, heading slowly downhill towards the docks, and becoming aware even as he did so that he was being followed.
His pursuers were not all men. One was a beggar woman carrying a baby. He had seen her a few streets back. That was unusual — such beggars usually kept to their own territories and did not stray. After that, he noticed that a man garbed in the most nondescript brown clothes always seemed to be ahead of him. Once alerted he noticed other faces he was sure he had seen before. In Sorrow he might have risked diving into the back alleys and giving them the slip, but he did not know his way around here well enough, and he was sure they would know the locality far better than he did. Worse than that, heading off the main thoroughfares might give them the chance to grab him, or stab him or whatever it was they planned to do. As long as he kept to the crowded streets, the chances of that were minimised.
Somebody must be watching the embassy. Did they know who he was or did they routinely follow anyone who departed from the place? The latter would argue for a huge pool of available manpower and an observer who was prepared to spend a lot of money to keep Asea’s people well observed. Malkior and the Council would both have those. He told himself not to jump to conclusions. It could be anybody.
At least at the moment they had shown not the slightest trace of any inclination to harm him. He could not rely on that though. He needed to find some way back to the embassy that did not leave him vulnerable. The simplest way would be to find some of the Foragers who were out and about in the city, and have them provide cover on the way back. He recalled the names of some of the taverns the soldiers favoured. Most were conveniently located near the embassy compound but some were down by the docks.
Of course that would be the most predictable move he could make. It would be the thing his pursuers would expect. He searched for other solutions. If he broke into a run somebody was sure to raise the hue and cry, and assume he had stolen something. That could lead to him being dragged down and beaten, or carted off to jail or the stocks. Neither alternative was appealing.
He could call for a cab or a sedan chair. That would provide him with some protection against abduction unless his pursuers bought the operators off, or had some connection with the authorities. He lengthened his stride and clutched at his sleeves to make sure his weapons were there. At least he still had those he told himself, wishing he had thought to ask Weasel and the Barbarian to accompany him.
He noticed a tall figure striding towards him. It took him a few moments to realise that it was Lord Malkior. He felt as if he had just walked into the jaws of a huge trap, oiled by the extraordinary wealth of the Dark Empire.
The Sardean noble was not dressed according to his station today. He looked much more like a prosperous merchant, wrapped in thick furs, head covered in a fur hat, flanked by two enormous flat faced bodyguards. He moved directly up to Rik.
“What a pleasant surprise,” he said.
“I am sure this is a surprise only to one of us,” said Rik.
“Please, I had enough fencing with words last night with the delightful Asea. It is early and I would much rather not strain my wits. I am never at my best with a hangover.”
Looking into his clear eyes, Rik doubted the Terrarch had a hangover. He seemed bright, alert, and ready for anything.
“What do you want?” he asked.
“Last night we discussed the fact that you could, if you chose, enlighten certain associates of mine about the events at the Serpent Tower.”
“There were other things hinted at as well. It might be in your best interests to discuss them too. In either case, you will find myself and my friends extraordinarily generous to those who help us.”
“What about those who choose to do otherwise.”
“I am a very bad enemy to have, my young friend.”
“I do not doubt it.”
“What do you have to lose by talking to us?”
“My life, I suspect.”
“I am sure you are starting to suspect that it may already be forfeit. Asea will not be leaving Harven. Whether you will be capable of doing so is in your hands.”
“What do you mean?”
“Tamara intimated to me that you had discussed the possibility of aiding us in bringing the arch-traitoress to judgement back in Morven, before the events at the Serpent Tower.”
“I am not so sure Asea is a traitor.”
Malkior smiled his easy smile. “She has seen to your rise in the world. I can understand how that has increased your faith in her. I assure you I can do the same. And I am on the side that is most likely to win this war.”
“I do not see your armies in Kharadrea. I have not heard that you were winning many victories.”
“We have not yet committed our legions, but we will.”
“You are showing your age, Lord Malkior. The modern term is regiment.”
“Indeed. I thank you for the lesson in terminology.” There was coldness in his voice that told Rik that he understood that Rik was against him. He shrugged his shoulders, like a merchant making one final resolution to try and sway a reluctant customer.
“Legions or regiments, the words are unimportant. What is important is their strength, and ours is infinitely greater than Talorea’s.”
“That has yet to be proven.”
“It will be. Not even Talorea can fight a war on two fronts and hope to win. Not if Koth himself commanded its armies.”
Rik considered Malkior’s words. They could mean only one thing. “You have made a pact with the King of Valon.”
“In the spring he will attack Talorea’s western borders. We shall attack its Eastern ones. No help will be forthcoming from Selenea against its traditional enemies.”
“Because the Quan will stop them.”
“I see Asea has given you a more than basic education in the geography and politics of our time.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because I would prefer to have you on my side. I have sentimental reasons for that. I have never had a son.”
The force of the words was like a knife driven into Rik’s ribs. He looked at the Terrarch standing in front of him, wondering what to say. One thing sprang immediately into his mind.
“Did you kill my mother?” The words were nasty, his tone more so.
“This is not the place to talk about such things,” said Malkior.
“I cannot think of a better one at the moment,” said Rik. He had no intention of going anywhere with the Terrarch if he could help it. Malkior shook his head as he would at a self-indulgent child. He reached out and touched Rik’s hand. An explosive shock of pain passed up Rik’s arm. He had never felt anything like it, agony so great that he could not open his mouth, could not scream. It was as if the marrow of his bones had caught fire and his blood had become filled with burning brimstone.
He collapsed face forward into the cold snow. The last thing he heard was Malkior calling for a sedan chair and a doctor to come and help the man who had collapsed.
Sardec stood by the dockside, wondering how it had come to this. He did not like their situation at all, did not like to think they were trapped and that their only option was to run. He found that he rather liked Harven, and would have liked to spend more time in the place. He wished that Rena was here. This was a place where he felt the two of them might be happy together, where Terrarch prejudices meant less, and humans meant more. He was surprised to find himself in sympathy with that attitude. His father certainly would not have been. He forced himself to concentrate on the matter at hand.
Another large ship was being towed into the crowded harbour. It flew the flag of Talorea. A few hours earlier he would have felt sure that its master would help him if asked, and if paid enough; now he was far from certain. At every ship, at every agent’s office, he had heard the same thing. There were no ships available. The tides were wrong. Storms were expected in the Bay of Whales. No cargoes were being sent in that direction right now. The ship’s master was sick. There had been an outbreak of pestilence on board and no man was allowed ashore because of the quarantine. The extent and originality of the excuses had been really rather impressive. Without ever quite spelling it out, the merchants and captains had let him know that no ship was likely to become available no matter who his patron was or how much he was prepared to pay. Sardec was beginning to lose his patience.
The man in front of him now seemed frightened even by his very presence. He was an agent for a Talorean shipping company, a small man but wealthy looking, recommended by Ambassador Valefor, and for that reason the last Sardec had approached.
“I am sorry, Lieutenant,” he said. “All our outbound ships are heading for Selenea. And none of them have room for passengers.”
“They are simply too small.”
“That is not what I meant.”
“I am sorry, Lieutenant. I’m afraid I don’t understand you.”
“Why will you not aid an officer of your own nation?”
“I would if I could but as I have already explained…”
“Let me explain something,” said Sardec. “If you do not help us I will see to it that you die.”
“Are you threatening me, Lieutenant?” Sardec gestured in the direction of Weasel and the Barbarian.
“Those men there will cut your throat if I order them to.”
“The watch would have them…”
“I assure you they are capable of doing it at a time and place where the watch will not catch them. They could make your death particularly unpleasant if I asked them to.”
The merchant stared at the pair. He took Sardec’s assessment at face value. “If it were up to me,” he said at last, “I would find you a ship, but even if I did, no captain would take you.”
“Word has gone around that any ship that carries you will encounter the Shipbreakers.”
“Who has spread such rumours?”
“They are not rumours. The word has come through the Intercessors.”
“Lady Asea is an accomplished sorceress. She can protect any ship.”
“The Light preserve her, at sea the Quan are supreme. If they decide a ship will sink, it will sink. I have seen it happen.”
“You have seen it?”
“In my youth, when I sailed with the Summer Fleet there was a captain who took it into his head to blaspheme in their Temple. He was a bold man, an Ilimarian, and he feared nothing. For a bet he went to Temple and pissed in the sacred pool. For a week thereafter he wandered around the city, drunk and boasting how nothing had happened to him despite his actions.”
“When the Summer Fleet set sail for the Middle Sea we were no sooner out of harbour than his ship was destroyed. One minute it was there, a triple-masted forty gunner; the next it was gone.”
“It hit a rock?”
“In the open sea round Harven? It’s clear that you are not a sailor, Lieutenant. No — it was pulled down. I saw it with my own eyes. Massive tentacles, covered in suckers with leech-like mouths, emerged from the sea. Each was the size of a tower. They wrapped themselves round the ship and pulled it below, shattering it to splinters. No man survived.”
“Some must. They could have swum clear.”
The merchant smiled coldly and shook his head. “There were things in the water, Lieutenant, that made sure that when a man went down he never came back up. There were no survivors. Not a man-jack of the crew ever saw port again. It was a lesson to everybody, and everybody learned from it. You don’t defy the Quan and sail the Northern Seas, Lieutenant. And when the Intercessors say something is not to be done, it will not happen in Harven. The Quan don’t interfere here often, but when they do, they are obeyed. They are the real rulers of this city, Lieutenant, and that’s a fact. You could threaten to kill and torture every captain in this harbour, and they still would not take you, and do you know why, Lieutenant?”
“I suspect you are going to tell me.”
“You can only kill a man, Lieutenant, but the Quan, and that’s what those things were in the water that day, they will eat your soul.”
The merchant’s manner left Sardec in no doubt that he believed every word he said. He knew then that they were not going to be able to get out of Harven by ship.
Rik felt as if his mouth was full of rotten flesh, that his tongue was a bloated worm, that his limbs were made from mouldy cloth. All strength had been drained out of him. Terror filled him as memories of what had happened flooded back into his mind.
He opened his eyes and looked around. The walls were wooden. He could hear the sea lapping against them. The air was damp and salty. The floor was at an odd angle. Malkior stood in the corner of the room; his face was lit by a glowstone placed within an old naval lantern.
“You can shout if you like,” said Malkior. “No one will come. They are used to hearing screams from these old hulks.”
If the situation had not been so serious, Rik could almost have smiled. It was a situation straight out of those old chapbooks he used to read. He was a prisoner on one of the dreaded harbour prisons. He wondered if he could escape in any of the ways the heroes of his youth had.
He looked down at his feet. He was, as he had expected to be, chained. The weight dragged at his ankles and made it impossible for him to move more than a stride away from the walls.
“They have used these ships as prisons for over two hundred years,” said Malkior conversationally. “No one has ever escaped.”
“I find that hard to believe.”
“You have read too many storybooks. The Sea Devils take any swimmers they find in the waters around the hulks. Young Quan, hungry ones, wait here for just that purpose. It’s one of the few places in the harbour they are permitted to do so by their elders.”
“You seem to know a lot about them.”
Malkior shrugged. “We share certain tastes in common. I have been in touch with them for many years. They are fascinating creatures, if a little horrid.”
Rik fumbled at his wrists. He was surprised to discover that both his hidden pistol and his knife were still there. Cautiously he loosened the pistol in its holster. He might still have a chance to escape, he thought. He could threaten Malkior with the gun and get himself unchained then use him as a hostage to get off the hulk. Instinct warned him that it could not possibly be that easy, but he decided he had better give it a try. He let the pistol drop into his hand. He raised it and pointed it directly at Malkior’s belly.
“You will order me released. You will not come close enough to touch me. If you do I will put a bullet in your gut.”
Malkior laughed at him. The sound was rich with mockery and in that moment Rik hated him enough to pull the trigger. Only his even stronger desire for self-preservation kept him from it.
“I am not joking,” he said.
Malkior looked at him. “It’s been a long while since anybody threatened me. Now it has happened twice in the space of twenty-four hours. First Asea, now you. I find the situation refreshing.”
“I have seen a number of belly wounds,” said Rik conversationally. “The deaths were never easy.”
“I do believe you are my son, Rik. I could not have said that better myself.”
“Then you also know I mean it.”
“I do. But consider the situation. You shoot me in the belly, possibly fatally, and what do you get? An unpleasant death at the hands, or I should say tentacles, of my aquatic associates.”
“I would get the satisfaction of killing you. I expect my own death anyway.”
“Then why not shoot?” If Malkior intended to call Rik’s bluff, he made a mistake. Rik pulled the trigger. The gun sounded as loud as a cannon in the confined space. Much to Rik’s surprise it actually worked despite the damp. Malkior staggered backwards, blood pumping from his belly. His face twisted in a rictus of pain then he laughed again.
“Very good, Rik. You are quite vicious enough to be one of my brats.” He straightened, and an odd green glow entered his eyes. The shadows around him curdled and whispered. There was a chinking noise and the bullet erupted from his stomach and rolled across the floor. Malkior opened his shirt and Rik could see that the flesh of his belly had already started to knit back together again.
“I cannot be killed by bullets, Rik. I am not entirely sure I can be killed at all. Certain… modifications were made a long time ago. Perhaps your patron should have told you that before she set you on me.”
“How would she know?”
“Asea knows a lot of things, as she made clear to both of us the other night. She made it perfectly clear that she suspects me of the murder of the Old Queen.” He gave a sly smile. “Quite correctly as it turns out.”
“So you did kill Amarielle, just as you killed my mother.”
“This business about your mother really upsets you, doesn’t it? Who was she? I am afraid I have quite forgotten her.”
“A Sorrow street girl you tortured to death in one of your rituals.” Malkior paused and appeared to consider for a moment.
“That one, of course. The dates would be about right. Well, I have to say I am sorry now that I know about you. If only she had told me, she might have saved her life. She might have saved yours as well. That was damned inconsiderate of her.” The mockery in Malkior’s voice was enraging, exactly as he intended it to be.
“Perhaps she thought she was saving me from you.”
“Well if that’s the case, she failed, didn’t she?”
“You are a bastard, aren’t you?”
“There’s no need to be rude, Rik. You are not going to be sharing my secrets with anybody, and I find it quite refreshing to be honest with someone after all this time. This will be our only chance for a father and son chat. Anyway, to business; I have a few questions to ask you, and I would really rather not get blood on these nice furs, so I trust you will spare us both the unpleasantness of having me torture you. It would ruin the magic of the moment for me.”
“Fuck you,” Rik said. Even before the words were out of his mouth, there was a very long, very sharp knife in Malkior’s hand.
“I can’t kill you, and I can’t use any magic that will damage your mind. Our hosts here would not like that, but I can think of a number of options that you really would not enjoy. I beg you not to make me use them. Salty water and flayed flesh are an extremely unpleasant combination.”
Despite his languid tone, Rik had absolutely no doubt that Malkior would flay him alive. Asea had taught him spells that would blank out pain, but there was a limit to what they could do, and he did not wish Malkior to know about his training. It was one of the few tiny advantages that remained to him.
“I will make you a deal,” he said eventually.
“You are not really in a position to do so, but I find myself in a generous mood. Speak your proposition and I will give you my answer.”
“I will answer your questions honestly if you will answer mine.” Malkior’s smile seemed genuine.
“Why not?” he said. “Tell me about the Serpent Tower. What happened there?”
“I do not know you will keep your side of the bargain, and I have no power to enforce it so I would prefer it if you answered my questions first.”
“If you are delaying in the hope of some last-minute rescue, you are deluded. No one is coming.”
“I believe you. However I am curious.”
“Very well. We have time. Ask away.”
“Do you really serve the Princes of Shadow?”
“Yes, I do.”
“They exist then.”
“Yes, they do.”
“Why do you serve them?”
“Technically, that is your third question without answering any of mine, but I will let that slide. I serve them because they granted me power and immortality and the means to gain revenge on my enemies. And for other, more sentimental reasons.”
“You are a Terrarch. You already had power and immortality.”
“Things were not quite as your people were led to believe on Al’Terra, Rik.” Malkior sounded thoughtful. “Our magic was fading, our immortality vanishing with it. The Princes of Shadow offered us the means to reverse that process. The High Council rejected their offer. Some of us thought them foolish to do so.”
“Why?” Again Malkior looked thoughtful. Rik composed himself to listen well. He had found that sometimes that was all it took to get people to speak, and every word he got Malkior to speak was one more heartbeat he did not have to face the knife. He was not yet ready to encounter death.
“The Council rejected the Princes’ knowledge on moral grounds. It involved a certain amount of what might be called vampirism.”
“Thanatomancy?” It was the ability to devour the life force of sentient beings and use it to power spells.
“Aha — Asea has been teaching you forbidden things — how very naughty of her. Yes, thanatomancy. They felt that it would be better if we all died off together rather than having the strong survive and prosper.”
“Perhaps they feared the justice of God.”
“There is no God, Rik. There is no Hell. There are no punishments for sin. Believe me, if God punished sinners, every single Terrarch on the face of this planet would be dead, starting with your beloved Asea.” Malkior sounded a little sad as he said it, almost as if he wished that it were not the case. He sighed and when next he spoke his voice was stronger and more certain. “They were against us because of their taboos, Rik. They thought what we did a species of cannibalism, and I suppose they were right, but when you are desperate enough you find that there are many taboos you can put aside.
“Of course, things are different now. Then all we had to devour were each other. Now we have a whole new world full of a species that can barely be described as sentient.”
Rik was surprised to find he was still capable of being shocked. “Humans?”
“Indeed. It’s amazing how that one little change makes such a huge difference. I made certain knowledge available in the East by various subtle means, and now every second rate necromancer who has his own private estate is about it. Thanatomancy is one of the reasons Sardea will win this war. Its sorcerers have become very strong indeed.”
“You are going to use the human race as cattle?”
“Can you think of a better use for them?” Malkior looked up and there was a glint of humour in his eyes. “Anyway, I think I have answered enough of your questions. Tell me what happened in the Serpent Tower?”
Rik told him, honestly and completely, leaving nothing out. Malkior paused to consider this. “You know, I believe you, but even if you are lying the Quan will get the truth. Your question.”
He seemed almost to be enjoying the game now. Rik found he was curious about his heritage.
“Were you born a Shadowblood?”
“I was. My mother taught me the secrets from my youth. I suspect her husband was not my true father. He died under rather mysterious circumstances. She was very devoted to the Desecrator. I suspect he was my true father. That would make him your grandfather.”
“Who was the Desecrator?”
“That’s an extra question but I will answer it. The truth is that I do not know who he really was. I only know he was originally a Terrarch like me. To tell the absolute truth, I hope someday to become like him.”
“How will you do that?”
“I think it’s my turn for a question. I think you should tell me what Asea knows now. Not what she suspects, what she really knows.”
“She knows you are a Shadowblood. I do not know if she can prove it, but she does not need to. She will kill you if she can.”
“I do not doubt it. That is why I must kill her first. I would have killed her long ago if I could have but she has always been very cautious until recently. Now tell me how she came to suspect what she does!”
Rik told him. When he got to the part about Tamara and the murder of Elakar, Malkior shook his head. He seemed almost angry. “I warned Tamara about using her powers. I warned her about showing off. She would not listen to me.”
“That’s a shame,” said Rik unable to keep the mockery out of his voice. Malkior smiled. It was a frightening smile.
“It is for you. It enabled Asea to put all the pieces together and that ended up with you sitting here. I suppose you could blame Tamara for that too. She’s going through one of her periodic phases of asserting her independence. I suppose I shall have to bring her to heel soon.”
“Do you have any regrets at all about what you have done?”
Malkior laughed. “I can’t afford regrets, Rik. The pursuit of godhood does not allow for them.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Wouldn’t you, if you could get it?”
“The difference between us, Rik, is that I am in a position to achieve it and you are not. It makes all the difference in the world.”
“And you would kill anyone who gets in your way?”
“I have killed a lot of people, Rik, and I expect to kill a great many more. Asea, Kathea, Azaar are all on my list. I think I shall start with Asea tonight.” Rik thought he was beginning to understand Malkior a little better now, the vanity behind his boasting was obvious. He must have suppressed this part of himself for a very long time to let it come so off the leash now. It was a pity he could think of no way to take advantage of the fact.
“Are there more like you?”
“Everyone is like me, Rik, or would be if they could get away with it. The difference is that I am strong enough to admit it.”
“To yourself, at least.”
“I keep the most important person informed that way.”
“You did not answer my question.”
“Of course there are more like me. Some I know of, some wear masks, but they are there. I am sure more than a few came over with the First. Anyway, I have found this little chat very stimulating but I can’t think of anything else I want to ask you. If you have a last question, better make it quick. The Quan are waiting, and hunger does not make them any better tempered.”
“Are they really going to devour my soul?”
“Believe me, if there was any way I could spare you that, I would.” Malkior sounded quite sincere, but he still opened the door. Something huge and moist and writhing hovered there, its bulk covered by a cloak, its face covered by a mask. The smell alone let Rik know that he was in the presence of one of the Sea Devils.
Outside it was already dark, although the time was barely late afternoon. Huge fat flakes of snow fell. From the window Sardec could see the ships’ lights reflected in the oil-coloured sea beneath them. They seemed to be mocking him.
“I could not book us passage, Lady Asea,” said Sardec. “I am sorry.”
“Don’t be. At least you were seen looking, which is important. Our enemies will believe that we are stymied, and that they have us where they want us.”
“Possibly because they do, Milady.”
“Perhaps,” she said.
“If we cannot get out by ship, and I am convinced that even if we could hire one we would not get far, how are we going to get out — fly?”
“Keep your voice down, Lieutenant. It is entirely possible we might just do that.”
“You have managed to rediscover one of the lost spells of Al’Terra?”
“They were never lost, Lieutenant. It’s simply impossible to channel enough power to work them in this world, not without the use of certain forbidden practises anyway.”
“You are surely not suggesting…”
“Not now, and not ever, Lieutenant. You are going to have to trust me a little bit longer.”
“You have had a plan since we came here?”
“Why did you not tell me?”
“I thought you would be more convincingly desperate if you did not know.”
“You were correct.” Despite her deception Sardec found his heart had started to lighten. They might get out of Harven after all.
“At the moment I am afraid we have another problem,” Asea said.
“What would that be?”
“My protege has not returned. I made it quite clear he should be back before dark.”
“He may be in a tavern somewhere. I know some of our men are.”
“I have already sent servants out to check.”
“They cannot have gone through every tavern, Milady. I am sure he will turn up soon.”
“I wish I shared your confidence, Lieutenant.”
The Quan floated in. There was no other word to describe the way it moved. Its feet, if it had any feet, did not touch the ground. It drifted slowly. The air around it shimmered, as if a translucent integument surrounded it. Rik thought of the sorcerer Alaryn’s description of the bubble in which he had visited the undersea city. Was this a device that worked like that only in reverse? Were those bubbles of water drifting over the Quan’s cloak? Did some sort of sorcery draw whatever nourishment the creature’s lungs needed from the air and filter it into a cocoon of water?
Malkior stood in the door and gave him a last regretful glance. “Truthfully, I wish things could have turned out differently,” he said.
“I’ll bet you do.”
“Do you have any last words you would like me to communicate to Asea? I will be sure to let her know them just before I kill her.”
“I doubt you will get close enough to use your magic on her the way you did on me.”
“On the contrary, I know my way around the embassy quite well. I have often been Ambassador Valefor’s guest there.”
Rik remembered how Lord Elakar had been killed and his heart sank. The Shadowblood Lord already knew his way into the heart of the embassy. He could get there any time he liked. There was no way he could warn Asea. The way the Quan drifted closer reminded him that he had his own problems.
“Goodbye,” said Malkior, closing the door on his way out. Rik felt a strange tearing sensation in his skull, and a queasiness such as he had felt near the Shadowgate Tamara had used back in Harven. It seemed that Malkior really had left him to his fate or most likely gone off to kill Asea. The Quan drifted closer to Rik. The cloak bubbled. It removed its mask. Rik bit back a scream.
Its face was not in the least human. The thing it reminded him of most was a squid. The head was greenish, leathery, bulbous. The eyes were moist and oddly human, the bottom half of the head was a mass of writhing tentacles. As they moved he saw that at the base of each was a leech-like mouth. Nasty white polyps emerged from the orifices. He had a feeling that he was soon going to find out exactly what they were for.
Malkior had left him with the concealed knife. He felt certain that was not entirely an accident. He let it drop into his hand and aimed a swift stab at the Quan. Fast as he was, it was faster. A tentacle erupted from under the cloak, and looped itself round his wrist. The thing was a mass of muscle. He could not move his hand against its strength. The tentacle constricted. Suckers bit home. He dropped the knife.
The Quan lunged forward. Water bubbled over Rik where its strange shimmering cloak touched him. A mass of tentacles stroked his cheeks, his forehead, his lips. Alien eyes bored into his own. Pain blistered his face. There was grinding sensation as lamprey mouths bit into flesh and bone, a horrible agonising feeling as something burrowed into his flesh. He remembered the white polyps. They had reminded him of corpse worms. Now they seemed to be slowly eating their way into his brain.
As quickly as it came the agony began to fade, as if there was something in the bite that had an anaesthetic quality. A wave of coolness radiated out from where the tentacles stroked his flesh. They bulged and contracted obscenely, as if they were pumping blood from his face. He tried to breath, but his mouth filled up with salt water from the thing’s cloak. It came to him then, that death was real and the end of his life was very close.
The pain returned, redoubled. Not just blood but his very life force was being drained out of him. He sensed the presence of the creature that was killing him in his mind, its alien thought processes mingling with his own. A flood of memories long buried surged up, tentacles of thought riffled through them, like a burglar searching a chest of drawers for some precious object. Not finding what it wanted, the Quan tapped more memories.
Triumph. The thing had found what it wanted and needed. Images of Serpent Men and a huge green tower flashed into his mind. They were not quite as Rik remembered possibly because the vision of this creature was somewhat different from his own.
The sensation of being drained increased. He realised that the Quan was not only going to devour his life and his blood, it was going to take his thoughts and memories too, even though it could not fully understand them. There was something in him it wanted, and to get that thing, it was going to reduce him to a mindless, drooling husk.
He refused to die this way, like his mother. His will stirred within him, rebelling against the horror and the fear of death. He reached down into himself and drew upon his rage and pain. He focused it incoherently, half-instinctually, drawing on the training he had received from Asea, and forged it into a blade. He lashed out at the Sea Devil. Much to his own surprise, and more to the Quan’s he hit home. The draining sensation receded as the Quan’s mind recoiled. It was not used to its prey fighting back like this.
Having assessed the situation and gauged the strength of its foe, it returned to the fray, striking at Rik as he had struck at it. Rik tried to block but it was like wrestling with a squid. The Quan attacked on too many fronts for him to deal with. They were fighting spirit to spirit, and it seemed like once more he was on the verge of drifting free from his body.
He recalled the initiation ritual Asea has put him through. He retreated into himself, till it seemed that he floated bodiless in the strange place between worlds, where he had made contact with the Deep. Confident, the Sea Devil followed him. Now, though, they were in Rik’s world. He was no longer a drowning, pain-wracked morsel of flesh trapped aboard a water-logged hulk. Here he was a power. This was his dream world, the place where his spirit touched the Deep.
He imagined a burning blade in his hand and armour around his body. Both appeared. He struck at the Quan. Its psychic scream echoed around the other space. It did not give up. It became larger, a titanic monster big enough to pull down a ship. Rik responded in kind, becoming a giant on the same scale. He made his blade hot as the sun. It slashed through the Quan’s covering of water, evaporating some of it, leaving a great seared wound in place. Berserk now, the Quan came back at him, a mass of leech-mouthed tentacles smashed into his armour. Where each of them hit he felt life drain from him. The bites were cold as steel left in winter ice.
He made his own blade hotter, tried to imagine it was like those gaping mouths, able to draw strength from its victim. The blade bit home again and a warm hot surge of strength flowed back into him, and along with it came a mass of strange memories. Images flickered through his mind.
He saw a city of glowing coral deep below the sea, where hundreds of the Quan rippled through the water. Monstrous creatures, a hundred times larger than they, circled spewing seed-like spawn into the water, only one in a thousand of which would survive to adulthood. He saw the vast shining monsters of the ocean depths and the secrets of sunken cities.
His blade bit home again, and more strength flowed into him, warming him. The bites of the tentacles seemed small feeble things now. More and more memories surged into him. He could not process them all, or comprehend even a tiny fraction of them. He tasted raw flesh, raw fish, the orgasmic bliss of draining a mind dry, the flood of thoughts and sensations and memories. He realised that in some small way, a part of all those the Quan had devoured was still within it, and some tiny shred of each victim’s memories had become its own. These he understood, and the tidal wave of horror nearly broke his mind. He endured the deaths of hundreds. He was distracted for a moment, and felt the Quan begin to break free.
Instinct told him that he could not allow that. If the connection between them was severed now, it could kill him in the flesh. Through the pain and the blizzard of stolen memories, he forced himself to act, forging a net of spun thought to catch the beast and draw it back to him. He struck it again and again with his sword of flame, draining more power and more memory from it, until he could strike no more. He knew he was fading and put everything he had into one last blow.
A tidal wave of energy and memory surged over him, smashing him down into darkness.
He woke to find himself sprawled over the slimy wet corpse of the Quan. He felt strange, different, changed. He felt tainted, as if something else had slipped into him, as if by killing the Quan he had somehow become like it. Hundreds of voices whispered to him. He tried to block his ears but the whispering continued for they were in his mind. He wondered if he was sane, if he could ever be sane again after what he had just experienced.
One thing he realised. He was filled with an awesome power. He invoked the healing spells Asea had taught him, and his flesh almost burned with their energy. His lungs cleared. He felt stronger and better than he had done in years. He smiled. That at least was positive.
A hundred voices clamoured desperately in his mind. Thousands of thoughts and memories bubbled up. He wrestled with them, forced them down. With his newly acquired strength it was easy. He felt like a god. He knew he had enough energy to work any sorcery. He had taken it from the Quan. He supposed in his way he had become a Thanatomancer.
He could see how people became addicted to it and the sense of power and well-being it gave. He considered the other spells he knew. His thoughts seemed to have a new clarity. He invoked the spells that would lend him strength and speed. His muscles flexed and bulged. Power flowed through his veins like a drug.
He reached down and picked up the Sea Devil. It was astonishingly light. Whatever sorcery allowed it to move on the surface undoubtedly reduced its weight. He pushed it aside and picked up his knife. He checked the shackles holding him. They were old, and their locks were far from complex and he was a thief from Sorrow. Using the tip of his knife he sprang the mechanism and was free.
He forged a spell-chain in his mind and sent the energy rippling out through his body. The power of his senses became magnified. He could hear whispers in the furthest corners of the hulk, knew that there were guards waiting in the corridor. They were waiting to let the Quan out. He lifted the floating corpse, placed it in front of him and banged on the door. It opened. He pushed the corpse forward so that it impacted on the guards, then stepped forward and killed them both with his knife.
It was easy. They moved so slowly compared to him. Their flesh split like that of a melon. He sprang out into the corridor. More men waited there. Some of them had pistols. He raced forward while they were still confused. Once, twice, three times his blade struck home. Three men died before they even realised what had happened. He picked up a cutlass, stuffed pistols in his belt. He was going to take revenge on some people for what had been done to him.
Yes, yes, went the voices. He forced them down. He could afford no distractions.
He stepped out onto the deck of the hulk. The screams from below had warned the guards on deck. They raised their weapons and raced towards him. He laughed, struck aside one man’s sword arm and buried his dagger in his throat. With a smooth motion he lifted the corpse and hurled it at the remaining guards. He followed it and was among them, killing as he went. Strange exultation and an urge to feed filled him. All of the voices wanted it. He fought that down too. He did not have the time or the knowledge. He hoped he had not the desire.
Within minutes he had cleared the hulk. It appeared he was the only prisoner. Now he wondered how he was going to get off. They were a long way out in the harbour and he could see shapes swimming in the water around the ship. More Quan, he knew. Swimming was not the answer. He searched until he found the small boat tied to the stern of the hulk.
He had no idea whether the Quan would attack him while he was in the boat, but he was going to have to risk it.
Sardec was astonished when the half-breed staggered into the room. He looked as if he had just fought a war entirely on his own. Small puckered scars covered his face. Blood covered his clothing. He stank of seawater and something else, something sickeningly fish-like. There was madness in his eyes that was a product of more than pain. Even the way he moved was different, somehow inhuman. Instinctively Sardec placed himself between Asea and Rik. He noticed Karim taking up a position, blade bared behind him.
“What happened, Rik?” Asea asked.
The half-breed paused for a moment as if listening to something, or as if searching for words in a foreign language. Sardec drew his pistol. Something was not right here. The half-breed shook his head. “No need for that, Lieutenant. You are in no danger — at least not from me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You should leave the embassy.”
“Where would we go?”
“Anywhere but here. Malkior knows his way around the embassy. I think Valefor showed him.” His eyes were locked with Asea. He seemed to think the words would have more significance to her than they would have to the rest of them, which apparently they did.
“You have met Malkior,” she said.
“He did this to me. He and a friend.”
“You were very lucky to escape them then.” There was suspicion in her voice. She moved her fingers through the gestures of a spell, spoke a word in one of the ancient tongues. An Elder Sign burned in the air before Rik then passed onto his forehead, branding it.
His face became a grim rictus. Strange light appeared in his eyes, and the flesh over the scorch mark rippled and vanished. “That hurt,” he said. “I would be grateful if you did not do it again.”
“It was necessary, Rik. Whatever the problem is, it’s not that you are under any sorcerous compulsion.”
“I am glad we agree on that. We need to get out of here now. Malkior has made a deal with the Quan. And he is coming here to kill you tonight. I am surprised he is not here already.”
“Perhaps he had business elsewhere. Or perhaps he feels he has plenty of time.”
“That may be the case. I don’t know what else to say. Things are going to get hot for us here very soon. I killed one of the Sea Devils while I was making my escape.”
“I killed one of the squid-bastards and I am glad I did.”
Sardec remembered the merchant’s tale of the Shipbreakers and his heart sank. It seemed that this embassy was doomed. Apparently Asea’s lover had slaughtered one of the city’s secret rulers, one of the very beings they had come to negotiate with.
“I think you had better tell me what has happened Rik. Lieutenant, I think you should go and see to it that my clothing hampers are set out in the courtyard below.”
“With all due respect, Lady Asea, I don’t think that now is the time to worry about the way you are dressed.”
“Please just do what I ask, Lieutenant. I will answer your questions later.”
Rik waited for the others to clear the room, and for Asea to invoke her wards, then slumped into the chair. His body ached and he knew why. When he had increased his strength and speed he had put stress on muscle and bone in ways he had never done before. He was paying the price for it now. Asea stared at him, measuringly.
“So you still trust me then,” he said eventually.
“It appears that I do. Now tell me what happened!”
He told her, letting her know everything that had happened in the past few hours. She listened intently as he spoke.
“You killed a Quan and ate its soul? You are stronger even than I thought,” There was a trace of awe in her voice.
“It was the Quan or me. I did not have much choice in the matter.”
“And its power is within you now. You don’t have to answer — I can see it and that answers a mass of other questions.”
“What are you going to do to me?” Rik braced himself. He was not sure he could or even wanted to kill Asea if she turned on him now, but he was not prepared to be slaughtered like a lamb either. He had gone through too much recently to allow that to happen.
“It would appear that I am now a fully paid up member of the Guild of Thanatomancers for one thing.”
“As you said, that was accidental.”
“And I think I may be going mad. There are a hundred voices in my head.”
“They will fade as you master them.”
“You seem to know a lot about that.”
“More than I care to.”
What did she mean by that, Rik wondered? There was a loud banging on the door. Lieutenant Sardec spoke. “If you have some means of leaving this place, Milady, now would appear to be a good time to use them.”
“What is happening?” Asea asked.
“Our lookouts have reported that something is very amiss in the harbour, and it looks like there is a small army heading our way.”
“We shall talk about this later, Rik. Now we had better leave this place.”
Malkior entered the observation post in the flat across the street from the embassy. Soon it would be time to mount his attack. The spy he had set to watch the Taloreans looked up at him, and smiled. The power from those souls he had just devoured roiled within him. He felt strong and powerful enough to overcome even the likes of Asea. As was always the case after he had performed a ritual, the voices in his head whispered to him like old friends, reminding him he was alive and powerful, while they were mere dregs inside of his brain.
“Things have been quiet since the beggar went inside, sir.”
“Same one as left early this morning unless I miss my guess. The one you told us to keep an eye open for.”
“The half-breed, Rik? Asea’s lover?”
“That can’t be true.”
“I saw it with my own eyes.” Malkior cursed. He should have come here earlier, but he wanted to give his prey time to go to sleep, and to build up his magical strength through thanatomantic rituals. Tonight of all nights, he needed to be strong.
“Are you absolutely certain?” Even as Malkior asked the question, the door opened and an Intercessor entered the room. It was the man, Alaryn, a being who Malkior trusted as far as he could throw him, if that. There was no need to ask how the Quan’s lackey had found him. Very little went on in the city that the Council and the Sea Devils did not know about.
“You have some answers to give, Lord Malkior?” he said.
“Are you sure they can’t wait?” asked Malkior pleasantly. “I am about to be very busy.”
“The Quan are not happy with you.”
Malkior turned and stared. The voices babbled in a chorus of anger and confusion. “What?”
“One of their Exarchs has been killed. They think you have something to do with it.” Malkior squelched the impulse to slay the fool on the spot.
“What nonsense is this?”
“The Exarch was killed on the prison hulk.”
“That’s not possible. He was alive when I saw him not two hours ago.”
“He is dead now.”
“I don’t know. But there was no mark upon him, and the Quan Overlords think his soul was drained.” Alaryn looked at him suspiciously. Malkior wondered if the signs of his recent ritual feeding were visible to the Intercessor’s eye. The wrong impression made here might prove fatal.
“Well what did the men on the hulk tell you?”
“Nothing. They were all dead.”
A chill passed up Malkior’s spine. A crescendo of fear rose among the voices. Was it possible that his supposed son had done this? Had the little bastard been that much more capable than Malkior gave him credit for being? Had he sat there and laughed at Malkior then casually murdered a Quan Exarch and his Intercessor-recruited bodyguard before making his escape and returning to the embassy? Malkior laughed, caught between the impossibility of the idea and the apparent fact of it being true.
“I can assure you this is no laughing matter, Lord Malkior. You told us the boy would be an easy target. You asked for a Quan Exarch to interrogate him yourself. Now he is gone and all witnesses to the way the boy escaped are dead — other than yourself. The Quan are quite keen to ask you some questions.”
“I’ll bet they are.”
“No need to worry about Lady Asea,” said Alaryn. “The Council is sending a company of soldiers to request her presence too.”
Malkior felt his whole plan slipping beyond his control. If he remained here, the Sea Devils might catch him and he could imagine the form their interrogation would take. He had no desire to find out whether he was capable of overcoming multiple Exarchs in sorcerous conflict or of surviving the sort of sorcerous interrogation they would perform. He had no desire to be stuck here with the Quan turned against him either. Fortunately, as always, he had prepared a bolthole and was ready to use it, and at least Asea was trapped here at the mercy of the Quan, and he doubted they would be gentle with her.
Rik stepped out into the courtyard in the centre of the embassy. His mind reeled from the night’s events. What he saw stumped him completely. The bodyguard was assembled there and Asea’s dress baskets were set up in the middle of the courtyard.
“If you would be so kind as to open the baskets and take out their contents,” she said to Sergeant Hef. “Please be very careful.”
Slowly, realisation of what was happening filled Rik. As he watched the men opened the wicker baskets. There was cloth within, but it was not made in the form of dresses. It was made in the form of Benjario’s huge balloon. As Asea gave calm careful orders the huge gasbags were laid flat and attached to eyeholes in the side of baskets with cables of spidersilk. There were three of them, and space enough in them for all ten Foragers, Sardec and Asea. Suddenly, a lot of things made sense.
Asea looked inside each of the baskets and produced a small rune-covered flask. They were much smaller than the ones she had used to summon elementals from in the past, but if he guessed correctly containing creatures more than strong enough for her purposes.
“Can you control all of them at once?” he asked her.
“They are much less powerful than War Elementals, and much less strong-willed. It will be a strain but I can manage it.”
“What about the wards in the city walls? Will they not destroy them?”
“I doubt it, but if they do it will be of no matter.”
“It will be to us, if your creatures fail and we plummet to our doom.”
“That will not happen, Rik. Trust me.”
“I guess I am just going to have to.”
Without further ado, she opened the first of the flasks. A small salamander, a tiny fire-elemental, spun out, its flickering light mirrored in the flask’s polished interior.
At Asea’s command men opened the mouth of the gasbag. The elemental moved closer and hot air began to fill it. One by one, more salamanders exited the flask. One by one, the gasbags rose. Asea ordered the men to hold them down.
Sardec turned to Weasel and the Barbarian. “It’s a pity about Ambassador Valefor’s accident,” he said.
“Accident, sir?” said Weasel.
“The way he fell from the balloons when we were trying to escape.”
“Right you are, sir,” said Weasel. “I shall go and fetch him.”
“Don’t kill him,” Asea said. “He may be innocent, and even if he is not, we don’t have the time. Get aboard. If need be, I will deal with Valefor later.”
Her tone told them that a quick clean death might be better for him if he had betrayed them. Asea’s vengeance would not be pretty.
Vengeance is good, the voices in Rik’s head whispered.
The balloon lurched skyward. The courtyard of the embassy receded below them. Soon they were drifting above the cities red-tiled roofs, getting higher with every heartbeat. Sardec clutched the wickerwork of the basket with his hook and stared down. It looked like they had taken off none too soon.
Coming up the street towards the embassy he could see a large body of men. By the light of their glowstone lanterns he could see that they numbered in the hundreds and were armed with muskets. A quick calculation told Sardec that they were most likely out of range now, which was good, because he shuddered to think what would happen if a musket ball penetrated the silk gasbag overhead.
The wind pushed them away from the sea. Sardec was glad because from this height he could see something strange was happening out there. The waters around the edge of the harbour boiled. Something massive and luminescent blocked the harbour mouth. It looked like a squid but was big as an island and its tentacles seemed so long that they might be able to reach up and pull the balloons from the sky. He shivered and pulled his coat tighter. It was cold up here but that was not what had caused the chill to run down his spine.
They drifted above temple spires. The waters of countless streams glinted silver below them. Once or twice he heard shouts and screams. Perhaps someone had looked up and seen the balloons drifting across the moon.
Rik still made Sardec uneasy. He had the feral inhuman look to him that Sardec had noticed earlier, and there was something strange and pained about his movements. If Sardec had not known better he would have thought the half-man possessed.
What had gone on between the Sardean and the half-breed, Sardec wondered? Why did Rik look so battered? What exactly was the nature of their conversation? And why was one of the highest lords of the Dark Empire talking to Rik anyway. Had there been some sort of secret negotiations going on between him and Asea, using the half-breed as a go between? If so, why had Rik claimed to have escaped and killed a Sea Devil in the process?
The city walls came ever closer, and with them the moment Sardec dreaded. There were potent warding spells woven into those walls. Amongst other things the wards were intended to keep war elementals out. What would happen when the salamanders feeding hot air into those balloons encountered the wards? Perhaps they would simply be snuffed out. That was not a reassuring thought so far above the ground.
Lord Malkior stepped back into the shadows at the back of the room. The drumbeat march of the Council’s soldiers had stopped outside the embassy, and they were demanding the doors be opened. They were going to be deeply disappointed when they got inside.
Alaryn watched him like a hawk. Malkior shook his head. “I am not so foolish as to think I can escape from the city when the Quan wish otherwise. Please allow me to collect a few adjuncts from my dwelling and I will join the Council soon.”
“I am afraid I cannot allow that,” said Alaryn.
Malkior feigned anger as he stepped closer. “Cannot or will not? You do not like Terrarchs do you, human?”
“It is nothing personal,” said Alaryn, and collapsed as Malkior’s blow caught him on the side of the head. Malkior caught the wizard as he fell, and let him slide gently to the ground. He wished that he could punish the man for his insolence, but any use of his personal brand of magic would let the Council know what Malkior really was, and there was no need to make things worse there than they already were.
“Intercessor Alaryn appears to have taken ill,” Malkior told the spy at the window. “See to it that he is looked after while I collect my gear.”
Before the man had time to reply, Malkior swept passed him, out the backdoor and into the night and shadows. He was annoyed at the failure of his carefully woven plans here, and knew that he was going to have some way to make Asea and her pet pay. For now though, it was time to flee the city.
After that he would need to accelerate his plans to kill Kathea, and make sure the Taloreans had cause to regret their invasion of Kharadrea. The voices in his head roared agreement. He called on the power within him, stepped into the shadows and vanished from mortal sight.
“How did you know the wind would drive us south?” Sardec asked as they approached the wall.
“Nine times out of ten it blows off the sea at this time of year,” Asea said.
“So you could still have been wrong about it?”
“Yes. I expected to make my departure at the time of my choosing, but the odds were still with us. And if they had not been, I have a contingency plan.”
Before Sardec could ask what it was they passed over the walls. Sardec flinched but nothing happened.
“We’re through the wards,” he said, not quite believing it.
“Of course, they are designed to keep things out, not in,” Asea shouted. “Even if the elementals had been dismissed, we are perfectly safe.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“The gasbags are already filled with hot air. It would take some time for it to cool, and for us to sink gently earthward. Before that happened I would release more salamanders and we could continue our journey. It would not do to land in the swamp by night.”
“No, it would not.” Sardec smiled in relief. It seemed they might live through this after all.
Dawn saw them leave the swamp behind them. Rik was glad. The smell of rot and marsh gas and other things rising from the land below them had brought back memories, not all of them his own. He had spent all night in fitful dreams, waking in the cold that the heat of the salamanders only partially protected them from, with the recollections of dead men, and other things bubbling to the surface of his mind.
There had been times in the coldest, darkest hours of the night when he had almost wished the Quan had killed him. At least then he would not have had to undergo this torture. It might have gone worse, he tried to tell himself. Part of him might still be alive, drowning in the memories of the Sea Devil forever, part of his soul preserved in it, as its soul was now preserved in him.
He felt horrible, worse than he had ever done when he was sick or hung-over and he knew the feeling could not be cured by healing spells because it was something that was directly within his brain. Whatever happened, he decided, he would not rest until he had paid Malkior back for putting him through this.
Yes, yes, vengeance, said the voices at the back of his mind.
He looked down on the snow-covered land below them. Occasionally, when they drifted over a fortified manor, or a farmhouse, tiny people looked up at them as if they were some passing god or demon.
“You are awake,” said Asea. “Good — you are just in time to witness the second part of this experiment.”
“And what would that be?”
“Watch and learn,” she said. She had a second flask in her hand now, and muttering a spell, she opened it. The air grew colder as a small translucent humanoid figure emerged, it swirled around them as much cloud as person, ghost-like. As Asea spoke it swirled off into the mid-distance. The wind picked up driving them on southward, faster than they had gone previously. She repeated the process again and again, and with each of the creatures released their speed increased. At this height with no reference points nearby to judge against, Rik could not say exactly how fast. He guessed that their speed was at least as great as a galloping horse. And even if they were followed by a troop of hussars, they would still have to follow the roads and the curve of the hills; they could not fly directly over things as the balloons could.
“I would rather we were not overtaken by pursuit from Harven,” she said.
“I can understand why. How long can you keep this up?”
She looked a bit stunned already. Gazing closely at her, he could see her pupils were dilated, and suspected that she had once again resorted to her potions for energy and wakefulness.
“As long as I need to,” she replied.
“I pray that it is the case.”
For days they passed over a landscape that seemed a dead white desert. Sometimes they saw foraging troops. Mostly they saw the smoke and lights of small towns. It was cold, and they had nothing to eat, and it was quite a strain to relieve yourself over the edge of a basket with nothing but thousands of feet of air below you.
There were times, particularly when they passed through clouds, when Sardec could almost believe that they had died and were floating through some nether realm of damned souls. It seemed that he was not the only one who felt that way. Amid the clouds, the men shouted and sang, making noise just to reassure themselves that there were other people out there, that they were not lost in some heavenly limbo, that there was a chance that they might someday return to the surface of the world.
Sardec prayed that was the case. He worried about many things, about the structural integrity of the baskets and the strength of the ropes. It would only take one slight mishap and a basketful of them could be sent tumbling to the earth far below.
He found himself thinking about many things. He contemplated the military use of the balloons. Perhaps they could be used for spotting but they would be vulnerable to dragons in summer and elementals in winter unless provided with their own protection. He reckoned they must have been fortunate indeed that the Council in Harven had been so taken by surprise that they had not summoned any elementals themselves. When he pointed this out to Asea she said; “There was only a little good luck involved. It takes time to unleash elementals, and even more time to bind them unless you have some prepared. Without any warning of what was happening, it was a fair bet that we could get away unchallenged. And there are no dragons in Harven. The Quan do not like them and they do not like the Quan.”
Her words were slurred and her manner troubled Sardec. Her eyes looked huge and she seemed even more pale and gaunt than the Lady of the Ghouls he had encountered back in Halim. It was obvious that she was burning through a great deal of her personal power, and she was going to have to pay a dreadful price for that some time soon. He looked at the half-breed who just shrugged as if to say there was nothing he could do, which was most likely the truth.
Sardec hated this. He hated the feeling that there was nothing he could do, that he had no control over his own destiny. Matters were out of his hands, and would be until they returned to earth. He thought about Rena a lot, praying that he would get a chance to see her again, thinking long and hard about what he had seen in the great sea port of the way that Terrarch and human lived together there, wondering if such might not be the case everywhere some day.
There had been a time not so long ago when that would have seemed anathema to him. It would still seem so to many of his comrades, but he was starting to think that matters might not be so bad. He had once argued the exact opposite with Asea, and thoughts of that argument returned to him now. He wanted to say that he found himself far more in sympathy with her Scarlet ideas now than he once had been, but he did not want to disturb her concentration. Instead, seeking companionship and some conversation, he turned to Rik who huddled miserable and sick-looking in the corner of the basket, glaring at everyone with insane hatred in his eyes. Like all of them he was unshaven, and the stubble on his jaw gave him a wild feral look.
Sardec tried to tell himself that it was the long flight that was bringing out this side of the half-breed’s personality but the truth was that he had looked this way ever since he had returned to the embassy. Some of the things he mumbled to himself in his dreams were chilling.
Sardec squatted down beside him, grabbing the edge of the basket with his hook. “What happened back there?” he asked eventually then he smiled. “I seem to be making a habit of asking you that question. First the Serpent Tower, now this.”
Rik’s smile was cold and there was no hint of sanity in it. Sardec felt his flesh crawl but he continued to speak. “What trouble did you get yourself into?”
“It was Malkior. He set the Quan on me.”
“You talked with a Quan?”
“They don’t talk. They eat your mind, and while they eat your mind they digest your thoughts.” He laughed in a hideous manner. “Only I ate it. I ate it.”
Perhaps he was not laughing, perhaps he was trying not to weep. Sardec had once, to his shame, ordered Rik whipped. He had taken that whipping with as much insouciance as Sardec had ever seen. He had come out of the shadowy hell beneath Achenar with his sanity intact, and survived the destruction of the Serpent Tower seemingly unmarked. What had happened back there to do this to him? What horror had he encountered to surpass all those others?
Then he realised it was something else. Asea’s eyes were closing. The wind was starting to howl around them. It was getting colder. The sylphs were running out of control.
Sardec rose and grasped Asea by the shoulders. He shook her gently. “Wake up. Wake up!” he said urgently. Her eyes snapped open. She shook her head and seemed to realise what was happening. She muttered binding spells and the winds died down. The salamanders returned to an even glow.
“You can’t go on like this,” he said. “We need to get down from here.”
“Just a few more hours,” she said.
“You don’t have a few more hours in you. We need to get down to land. By now we must surely have outdistanced all pursuit.”
Much to his surprise she did not argue. “Very well,” she said. “When I see a suitable site I will try and put us down.”
Sardec watched the balloons burn. The landing had been rough but they had made it with only a few scrapes and bruises. The elementals had run out of control at the last, burning the baskets and silk, but not till after they had all got clear. Asea lay in the snow, surrounded by the men, covered in blankets. She seemed weary unto death. It was all right, Sardec told himself. It was her time to rest. Now it was time for him to do his job.
Looking around he could see that Weasel and the Barbarian had returned from the nearby town. “It’s Khalastrea, sir,” said Weasel. “We’re not more than twenty leagues north of Halim. There’s a small garrison here, our troops.”
Sardec remembered the town from his maps and did some swift calculations. He could commandeer some sledges and horses here if he had to. Using them and the post inns he could have them back in Halim in three days at most. They had come a long, long way in a very short time on those strange aircraft.
Sardec let out a long frosty breath of relief. They were almost back to the army. They had escaped from the impregnable city of Harven. “Shape up, lads,” he told the soldiers. “Another couple of days and we’ll be back with the regiment.”
When they gave three ragged cheers for him and Lady Asea he had to turn his head. He did not want them to suspect he was crying.
There was a discreet knock on the door of Rik’s chamber in the Palace at Halim. He lay still in the bed, luxuriating in its softness and comfort. It had been a week since they got back from Harven and he had started to recover from his ordeal. Sleep and food and some of the strange golden wine that Asea used to replenish her strength after magic had all helped. The voices were still in his head but they had sank back to a gentle murmur, omnipresent but almost unnoticeable except when he was tired or when he sought to work sorcery; then they would swell to a chorus that could almost swamp his sanity.
“Come in,” he said.
A servant in palace livery entered, bearing a silver platter on which lay a message. Just as quietly as he had entered, he withdrew to let Rik read it in privacy. The envelope was of thick expensive paper; the seal was one he did not recognise. Briefly he wondered about poison or letter curses or any of the other strange things he had heard of but decided that he most likely did not warrant such a thing. He broke the seal and studied the writing. The penmanship was lovely, the characters clearly formed in a precise hand. It said:
Lord Sardontine and his Lady wife request the pleasure your presence on the evening of the seventh day of the twelfth month. Our evening of music and conversation will begin at the eighth bell of evening.
It was signed by Lord Sardontine. Rik folded the letter up and placed it back in its envelope. He wondered why the old Terrarch wanted him at his dinner. Perhaps he was expected to sing for his supper with tales of his bravery. Or perhaps they were hoping for more gossip about their Queen or Rik’s recent trip to Harven. His instinctive response was to turn the invitation down. He had no place hobnobbing with Terrarch aristocrats. He was a former thief from the streets of Sorrow. For all the training Asea and her servants had given him, he remained so at heart. He doubted he could feel comfortable moving among such people.
When he visited Asea in her chambers, he mentioned it to her.
"You should go," she said. She was dressed once more in a gown. She still looked pale and more than a little gaunt. Their trip to Harven seemed to have been even more costly for her than it had been for him. He doubted she was getting much sleep. At night when he had passed her chambers, he had heard the sound of chanting, even through the sound deadening spells. She was preparing powerful magic. Doubtless she anticipated a struggle with Lord Malkior in the not too distant future.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because Lord Sardontine is one of those old aristocrats who likes to keep a foot in both camps. It would not hurt to get a feel for what he is saying."
"I seriously doubt that if he has any traitorous plans he is going to explain them to me over dinner."
"Sometimes you are surprisingly naive, Rik," she said and smiled. She obviously knew that would annoy him. The voices hissed disapproval in the back of his mind.
"In what way?"
"Lord Sardontine knows you are my protege. He is simply trying to establish a direct line of communication."
That made a certain amount of sense. The thought of being Asea's emissary did not make him any more comfortable with the idea of going to the dinner. His encounter with Malkior and the ease with which he had been taken had left him more than a little suspicious. “I don’t like hobnobbing with the upper crust,” he said, to hide his real reason.
"All the more reason for you to do it," she said. "The only way you will feel at ease with the Aristals is if you mingle with them. I assure you there is nothing to be intimidated about."
That was easy for her to say with her millennia old bloodline and her eternal presence among the high aristocracy. He wondered if she really had the slightest idea of what it was like to be him, and decided that she did not. Still she was right in one way. Putting himself into the situation was the only way he would ever become comfortable with it, and he needed to be so if he was ever going to fulfil his ambitions in this world.
"I believe I will take your advice."
"Good. Just one thing…"
"It would probably be for the best if you did not mention all the training you have undergone. Let them think you enjoy a life of ease. And try not to mention our recent hair-raising escapades in Harven.” Her smile showed him that she knew he could be trusted not to bring the matter up in conversation.
"I will do my best."
"I am sure that will be more than adequate. You will be a credit to everything I have taught you."
Her smile widened a fraction. What was she up to, Rik wondered?
Lord Sardontine's mansion was near the Palace. High white walls tipped with spikes surrounded it. Burly footmen waited by the gates. The coach rumbled up the long driveway, under arches of dragon-trees. More servants waited to greet him as he descended. He felt odd, almost as nervous as he had done before infiltrating the Serpent Tower. He told himself that this would be much less dangerous but could not quite bring himself to believe it. The voices whimpered nervously in the back of his mind.
From inside came the strains of complex chamber music. He paused for a moment, breathing in the scented air. There were many blooms here of a type he had never smelled before. Apparently Lord Sardontine or his wife was a keen gardener. He took a deep breath, composed his face into the cold mask he had seen Terrarch officers wear, and strode up the steps.
A human butler showed him through the corridors and he was ushered into a finely furnished chamber. Panels embossed with golden Elder Signs covered the white painted walls. A massive chandelier full of glowglobes descended from the ceiling. A small chamber orchestra played on a raised dais. Groups of people stood around chatting in the corners. As he entered, Lady Sardontine rose from her seat and moved to greet him.
"Ah, here is the hero of the Serpent Tower," she said. Her voice was low and breathy. Her hand lingered on his arm for longer than was strictly necessary. She met his gaze boldly and with a mischievous glitter in her eye. "Come, let me introduce you."
Rik looked around the chamber for her husband but the elderly Terrarch was nowhere visible. He was moved in a whirl from group to group, bowing to the ladies and gentlemen alike, speaking in the courtly formal way Asea had impressed on him. He did his best to memorise the names, a process that was not helped by the strong liquor in the goblet Lady Sardontine pressed into his hand from a tray carried by a liveried footman.
"You do look handsome tonight," she said as they moved between groups.
"And you look extraordinarily beautiful." It seemed like the easiest thing to say. Her face brightened at the simple praise. She tilted her head to one side as she studied him. “You have changed. You seem a little more seasoned.”
“That was an interesting choice of words.”
"I heard you have added a new skill to your repertoire — you are now an aeronaut." Here it comes, thought Rik, the first few questions of the Inquisition.
This was overheard by a tall, golden-haired Terrarch in the uniform of a Captain of one of the Kharadrean regiments. "It cannot possibly compare to dragon-riding," he said, butting into the conversation.
"I am surprised you are in a position to compare," said Rik lightly. "I had thought ballooning was still a novelty."
"One does not need to wield a club to know that it cannot compare to a rapier." The Terrarch's voice had a dangerous edge. Rik wondered at the way he had so smoothly manoeuvred the conversation into talk of weapons. Would there be talk of a duel next? He doubted it; he was not the sort of person a Terrarch noble would deign to fight with.
"You have a point," Rik said, gesturing to the captain's own sword. To his surprise the Terrarch laughed, as did Lady Sardontine.
"You did well at the Serpent Tower," said the Captain. "I have heard the Queen plans to reward you."
"No reward is necessary," said Rik. "It was a privilege to serve her majesty."
He found himself falling into his pre-ordained role of suitably humble hero a little too easily for his own liking, but it seemed the best way to be. He was out of his depth here amid these glitteringly beautiful people, and he reckoned it would be wise to present them with the front they expected to see. The voices whispered that it was always best for people to see what they expected. He kept the smile on his face with an effort.
"Nonetheless," said the Captain, "far as it is from my part to second guess our Queen, I suspect that she will show truly regal gratitude."
The officer and Lady Sardontine exchanged secretive smiles and he wondered if he was being mocked, or the Queen was.
"We have not been introduced, sir?" Rik said. Lady Sardontine touched his hand intimately again.
"I am remiss in my duties as hostess, Captain Talarion, this is Rik. Rik this is Captain Talarion." They bowed to each other and the Captain helped himself to another drink from a passing tray.
"I understand you used to serve in the same unit as Lieutenant Sardec?"
Rik sensed a trap here but was uncertain how he could avoid it. Surely they all knew he had been an enlisted man, and Sardec an officer. Was Talarion reminding him of that? "That is the case," Rik said.
"I hear he fought a duel over some wench," Talarion said. His smile widened a fraction. It was like watching a sword being slowly drawn from a sheath.
"That sounds very romantic," said Lady Sardontine.
"A human wench," said Talarion. There was silence for a moment and an exchange of smirks. Talarion waited for a heartbeat and finished his attack. Rik saw it coming. "It seems that taking human lovers is all the rage in Talorea these days."
Rik looked from him to Lady Sardontine and smiled back as coldly. He held the woman's gaze as he said; "Perhaps it will become fashionable here in Halim as well. You never know."
She smiled back at him. "You never know," she said.
Seeing something pass between them, Talarion raised his eyes to the ceiling. A small pulse of what might have been anger beat on his forehead. "If you will excuse us, Captain," said Lady Sardontine, "I must introduce our young hero to my other guests."
"By all means, my dear, I can see I have wasted enough of your time already."
"Ignore the good Captain," Lady Sardontine said, once he was safely in their wake. "He is of the old school and can be something of a boor. Do not judge us all by him. Some of us in Kharadrea understand that the world is changing."
There was a note of apology in her voice, and something else, perhaps it was fear. He realised that Lady Sardontine very much wanted to stay on his good side, or more likely that of Lady Asea. Or perhaps she is simply trying to be friendly, he thought, and discounted the possibility immediately.
The voices told him that was wise.
They entered the orbit of another group. This one consisted mostly of women surrounding a tall Terrarch male so slim that he looked positively sickly, an impression reinforced by his constant coughing into a handkerchief. He was unusual in that he was not wearing a military uniform but a dress coat of heavy purple velvet, and a number of silk scarves.
All of them gave him glances that were quite welcoming, even the male. Introductions were made. The usual questions asked. The sickly Terrarch, by name Petron, by profession an author, by blood Lady Sardontine's brother, spoke: "I, for one, will be glad to have Kathea seated properly on the throne, and the Taloreans here. For too long Kharadrea has languished in the shadow of the Dark Empire." He paused for a moment. Rik guessed that the word shadow had a resonance for Terrarchs that it simply did not have for him, something to do with the powers that had evicted them from Al'Terra. "Now we shall see some progress. Our backward land will wake up.”
The ladies emitted small shrieks of scandalised outrage, although Rik suspected they were really quite enjoying Petron's words.
"My brother is a radical," murmured Lady Sardontine in Rik's ear. "He is a great admirer of your patron. Our father disinherited him because of his Scarlet outlook."
"My sister is doubtless informing you of the skeleton in the family closet. My father is an old tyrant. He regrets the days of the Conquest ever ended and that he can't take the whip and lash our humans to death as he used to do in the old days."
Petron smiled at Rik warmly, a thing that made him as uncomfortable as the coldness of some of the other Terrarchs. Petron was trying too hard to be friendly, to show he had no prejudice. He was not seeing Rik as himself but as a human, any human. This conversation was not about Rik, did not include him and never would. It was all about Petron, and how radical he was. Rik smiled back. He was becoming quite expert at playing the hypocrite.
"I understand that still happens in Sardea — the beatings to death, I mean."
"My dear fellow it still happens here in Kharadrea. Not all of our landowners are enlightened. King Orodruine's edicts may have made it illegal to kill your humans for all but capital crimes, but somehow word of those laws never reached our larger estates. Khaldarus means to repeal the edicts anyway; he has said so publicly many times. That is why it is imperative — imperative! — that Kathea is our Queen."
Rik felt the old slow, smouldering anger start to build within him. The outrage he had felt even as a boy against the injustice of the world was still there despite his current hypocrisy. As the anger mounted the whisper of the voices in his head became louder. There were times when he thought he sensed even the presence of the Quan, swirling somewhere in the depth of his mind, lurking there like a shark below the surface of placid waters.
Petron's words reminded him that the order of the world was still wrong, that murder was still being done legally, that people were still being killed at the whim of the world's Terrarch masters, and that it would only get worse if the Dark Empire won. From what Malkior had told him, worse things than that were happening in Sardea, and for once Rik saw no reason to disbelieve his putative father.
He kept his face a mask, determined that these people would never see the way he really felt. Sometimes it was hard, he thought, caught up in the cynical politics of the Terrarch factions and his former comrades lust for plunder, to keep sight of the fact that, despite everything, the conflict they were engaged in really did have a meaning beyond the goals of the protagonists, that the world really could be a better place if one side won and another side lost.
He brought his attention back to Petron who was still enumerating a list of his father's crimes against his serfs. Another realisation hit him. Easy as it was to be cynical about Petron and his motives, the Terrarch probably was a real ally to the cause of humanity.
The night moved on in a whirl of drinking and music and conversation. Rik mostly listened, told tales of his life as a soldier, avoided all questions concerning what had happened in the Serpent Tower or in Harven. He drank far less than those around him, afraid that if he did the voices would become louder. His reticence seemed only to stand him in good stead, to add to the aura of mystery that surrounded him. He began to feel that things were different here, that these people knew nothing about his past, they seemed to take him more or less at face value, as part of the conquering army, as a hero who had saved their future Queen, as the mysterious putative lover of an Elder World sorceress. It was a seductive feeling. He had come a long way from the streets of Sorrow, from their soiled terrors and grubby triumphs.
All these people saw was his nice coat and his Terrarch features. They did not know and need never know about his thievish past. He grinned. They did not, but he always would. He was marked by more than being a Shadowblood. He was his past and it would set him aside from these folks for as long as he lived.
At some point during the night, he noticed that a few couples had discreetly vanished, unmissed amid all the drinking and music. He was not in least surprised when Lady Sardontine took his hand and led him from the chamber through a maze of passages into a dark cavernous room. Her breath was scented by alcohol. Her lips tasted of old Kharadrean wine.
The voices whispered beware, and he drew back. He sensed another presence in the room, and swung Lady Sardontine around so that she was between him and whoever it was. It was only a matter of moments before he noticed a figure standing in the shadows. He recognised her at once.
“Tamara,” he said. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
A blade glittered in her hand. He felt a small stab of fear. “I see you are armed with something more than a knitting needle this time.”
“Thank you for bringing this handsome young man here, Ilea,” Tamara said to Lady Sardontine. “I would be grateful if you could leave us for a while.”
“It was a pleasure, my dear,” said Lady Sardontine. “One I hope to have the chance to repeat soon.”
“So here we are again,” said Rik. The voices jabbered in his head. They were afraid of the sword, afraid that if he died they would lose their last toehold in life. He could not blame them for that.
“I would say the situations are reversed since last we talked,” she said.
“You surely don’t intend to kill me here,” he said. “Not with all these high ranking Terrarchs around. Or is the Kharadrean Liberation Army about to claim another victim.”
“One of the things I like about you, Rik, is your sense of humour.”
“That is reassuring.”
“There are times you remind me of my father.”
“Believe me, that is a path you don’t want this conversation to go down.”
“I hear you had a meeting with him and his interesting friends in Harven.”
“News does travel fast.”
“I believe you rather impressed him. He did not expect you to survive your last meeting. My father is usually right about such things.”
The chorus in his head swelled in anger. He tried to force them down, to make himself concentrate. How did Tamara know about what had happened in Harven? The voices refused to be silenced. They wanted Malkior dead. In truth, he wanted Malkior dead. It did not seem particularly diplomatic to point this out. “He very nearly was.”
“And yet here you still are, just like after the Serpent Tower. You have a talent for survival it seems.”
He looked at the sword in her hand. “Is it poisoned?” he asked. He felt sure that with the spells Asea had taught him he might be able to survive that but he was not sure he could survive the thrust of an ordinary blade, not with Tamara wielding it. He was going to do his best though. There was still a huge well of power within him from his encounter with the Quan and he still carried his concealed dagger and pistol loaded with a truesilver bullet. That would give him a chance, even against her.
“No,” she said. “But it is woven round with some particularly nasty spells. I would advise you to keep your distance.”
She seemed as wary of him, as he was of her. At least he had that small edge. “Why am I here?” he asked.
“I wanted to know if you had considered the offer I made you the last time we talked.”
He could not help but laugh. “I think your father’s behaviour puts that out of the question.”
“The offer does not come from my father. It comes from me.”
“I thought your interests were the same.”
“I once thought so too, but father had become rather erratic of late. I think the magic he uses to preserve himself has some strange side-effects that have finally caught up with him.”
I am in a position to testify to that, thought Rik. The voices whispered agreement. Tamara seemed completely serious. Of course, she would do. “I think Malkior would object to the way this conversation is going. And I think he wants me dead anyway.”
“Jaderac and I will soon be in a position to protect you from him.”
“I doubt that.”
“In the not too distant future Jaderac will be high in the favour of the Queen-Empress. Not even my father will go against her.”
“He had already killed one Queen Empress. I don’t see why he would stop at just the one. I don’t think he is entirely sane.” Rik did not think that he was entirely sane anymore himself, and if one exposure to thanatomancy could do this to him, what would it do to someone who had practised it over centuries, if not millennia. He noticed that Tamara did not seem particularly surprised by the news about the Old Queen’s assassination.
“I agree with you. That is why I am making this offer. You have survived an encounter with him when he wanted you dead. You are perhaps the only person in history to do that. You could be just as useful to us, as we could be to you.”
Rik inspected the proposition from all the angles he could see. Had Tamara really turned against her father and sided with his rival Jaderac? And what was the sorcerer up to that would soon return him to the favour of the Dark Empress? Rik was willing to bet it was nothing good or healthy to the cause of Talorea.
“The world is changing, Rik. The First are dying or going mad. The reins of power in the Terrarch lands will soon shift to younger hands. You could have your share of that power.”
“Or I could get a knife in the back as soon as I have done what you want.”
“Why would we do that? You are a useful Terrarch, Rik. More useful and more powerful than you seem to realise. Why do you think that Asea has cultivated you so assiduously?”
“For my startling good looks and rough charm obviously.”
“That might be part of it, but that’s not the way Asea thinks. You of all people should know that.”
“I am not going to kill her for you.”
“You are certain of that?”
“Yes. And if you don’t stop pointing that sword at me, I am going to take it away from you and beat you with it.”
“You really think you could?” Rik listened to the voices whisper within him. They wanted to kill. They wanted to feed. The slimy presence of the Quan Exarch moved to the forefront of his mind. By the way her eyes widened, he could see that Tamara could tell the difference in him.
“You have changed,” she said eventually. “I think you may be possessed.”
“Ask your father,” Rik said, deciding to add his own section to the vast labyrinth of lies and deceit in which they were all enmeshed. Why not? Everybody else was doing it. “He knows what happened.”
“So you have decided to side with him? He made you a better offer than we could.”
“Ask yourself this, Tamara — would you still be alive if that were the case? Given what you have just said to me.”
“Perhaps you simply want time to report me to him.”
“No, Tamara, when next I meet Malkior one of us is going to die, and if I have anything to do with it, it will be him. And you would be wise to stay out of my way while I am doing it.”
“You cannot kill him. No matter how strong you have become, he is still stronger.”
“We’ll see.” A look of sudden dread and realisation flickered across Tamara’s face.
“I know what has happened to you. You are just like he is, after he has fed.”
Rik smiled at her coldly. She did not know how useful this information was to him. Now all he had to do was get out of the Sardontine mansion with it.
“Why would he share that secret with you, of all people? Or did you find it out yourself, or from Asea? I am starting to wonder if you are really what you seem to be at all. Perhaps you are one of the new ones, from through the Gate.”
Rik had to fight to keep his features under control. Tamara could only mean one sort of Gate, and if people were coming through it, they were most likely only coming from one place. The Princes of Shadow really might have gained a foothold in this world. This was something that he needed to report to Asea. Tamara looked at him suspiciously as if her own words had just put a number of things into place for her. He did not want to disabuse her of any notions she might be forming. He wanted to get out of here with his skin intact if he could, and avoiding a battle with her seemed like the best way of doing that, despite his earlier bravado.
“I can’t persuade you to join us?” she said.
“I will make you a deal,” said Rik eventually.
“And what would that be?”
“I won’t try and kill you, if you won’t try and kill me. This is between you and me, and includes no one else. Not Jaderac. Not your father. Not Asea. Let us keep our options open. The situation is fluid and all our positions might be subject to change. You may need someone on my side soon, or I might need someone on yours. There is no need for violence between us. Not now, anyway.”
She stood silent for a while as she considered his words. Her shoulders slumped. The point of the blade lowered. The atmosphere in the room changed subtly. “You have a deal,” she said and appeared to mean it.
Don’t trust her, whispered voices. Don’t trust anyone. Right at that moment, Rik didn’t. He was starting to wonder whether he could even trust himself.
“She said there were others who had come through the Gate?” said Asea. Rik nodded and strode to the window. Across the darkened street, he saw the lights of the houses opposite, where life seemed normal. He tried to drown out the voices in his head. The night had taken on an unreal air. He could not quite bring himself to believe that he had been allowed to leave the Sardontine mansion unharmed. All the way back, in the coach, he had expected an ambush that never came.
“You are sure? What exactly did she say?”
Rik repeated it the best he could remember. Asea studied him carefully. He had told her almost everything that had occurred as it had occurred. The only thing he neglected to mention was that Tamara had tried to get him to agree to Asea’s assassination several times before.
“You think she was telling the truth?” Rik asked. “If so, why mention it now?”
“Perhaps you startled her into revealing something she did not want to reveal.”
“That seems a little unlikely. Tamara is very self-possessed.”
“I am not sure you understand how frightening you have become since you escaped the clutches of the Sea Devils. She could easily be convinced you are a rogue Thanatomancer. The signs are there for those who know how to look for such things, and I am sure she does.”
“Do you really think she has turned against her father though?”
“This might be one of his schemes to try and win you over to his side,” said Asea. “I am sure he knows that you would not trust him, but you might trust Tamara, particularly if you thought he was not standing behind her.”
“That thought had crossed my mind as well.”
“Keep it there. And keep thinking that way. You will live longer.”
“How do you know so much about thanatomancy?”
She sighed and shook her head, and he thought for a moment that she was not going to answer his question. “Because the Princes made the basic principles known to the wizards of Al’Terra. They wanted us to join them, to be tempted, to fall into their ways. Many did.”
“Malkior claimed that magic was failing on Al’Terra and Terrarch immortality with it. Is that true?”
“He was apparently very truthful with you, Rik. That is exactly the case.”
“Were you never tempted?”
“Of course, I was tempted, Rik. I knew even then that one day I would die. Even if the immortality spells were not failing.”
“How could you know that?”
“Simple mathematics, Rik. Accidents happen. People are assassinated. Live long enough and it is a certainty that the same thing will happen to you. It does not matter how good your magical protection is, sooner or later, it will fail, and death will come.”
“You do not refuse thanatomancy because you thought your soul would be in peril?”
“I am not even sure we have souls in the sense that the priests mean.”
“Why turn the Princes of Shadow down then? They must have offered more hope of longevity than what was available to you.”
“They did not. They offered a path to ruin and madness, a certain path. When you feed on the life force of others, you take traces of those others into you. It’s just the same as if you take a small dose of certain poisons every day — enough will build up in your body to kill you. Eventually thanatomancy drives you mad, if you keep at it long enough. You are not yourself anymore, only one personality among many.”
“Will that happen to me?”
“I don’t know. You are already different in so many ways it’s hard to tell. You are the first to devour a Quan. Apparently their feeding process was different from Malkior’s. You already retain far more memories than a Thanatomancer normally would. If you will take my advice you will not repeat the process.”
“I am not planning on doing so.”
“Many of my colleagues on Al’Terra never planned on doing so. They did it anyway.”
“I don’t understand why, if they knew they would go mad.”
“Because many of them did not possess all the facts. Many of them had no real understanding of what they were doing. And because many of them simply did not care. Wizards always believe they are special, Rik. What happens to others will not happen to them.”
Don’t trust her, the voices whispered. She is not telling you the whole truth. He hushed them. He still had other questions. “Tamara spotted what has happened to me. You have too. What if the Inquisition come for me?”
“It would be best if that did not happen. It would be best if you kept your powers secret. It would be best if you avoided the Servants of the Holy Flame until the things within you are less…visible.”
“I will do that.”
“Good. I need you here now, Rik, and I need you sane.”
“Is there any particular reason for that?”
“You are sensitive to Shadowgates.”
He understood her thoughts at once. “Malkior is coming here.”
“Yes. He has to. He has to kill you and he has to kill me. We know too much about him now.”
“What difference does that make? He is a High Lord of the Dark Empire. The Inquisition is not going to come banging on his door.”
“It might if we win this war. And he knows that sooner or later I am going to have to kill him. He knows that you will try too and the longer you live, the more dangerous you become.”
“You are flattering me.”
“There is a thing you should know about human wizards, and I suspect about half-breed ones too, Rik. They come into their power very young compared to Terrarchs. You have already made more progress in the past few months than most Terrarch wizards would in years, and you are much, much stronger than any Terrarch would be at your age.”
He turned this information over in his mind. The voices whispered that this was true. The Quan had certainly never met a human so strong. The fact that he was still alive proved this. “To tell the truth, Rik, you are already far and away the strongest mortal sorcerer I have ever met, and you will only become stronger if you are given time.”
He kept silent, and as he hoped she kept speaking to fill the silence. “I don’t know whether it’s because of your Shadowblood heritage or some other factor but you are different from all the other mortal mages I have encountered.”
“You think I can kill Malkior?”
“No, Rik, but I think that between us we can. I have a score to settle with him. Queen Amarielle was my friend and I was supposed to protect her. He killed her. He has killed an awful lot of people, and will kill many more if he is allowed to. The time has come for him to be stopped.”
“In this we are in agreement, but how will we find him?”
“He will come to us, Rik. If for no other reason than he has to take you back to the Quan to prove that he was not responsible for your escape.”
“I would die before I let that happen.”
“If the situation should arise that will probably be your best choice. We have other problems as well.”
“That’s good — we did not have enough already.”
“Lord Jaderac and Tamara are up to something, she as much as told you so. Given the fact that they are here in Halim, I suspect this is where their plan will come to fruition. I imagine it is not intended to benefit the Talorean army in any way.”
“What are you going to do about that?”
“I already have agents at work in the city. They are digging up leads. I have the Sardean embassy watched day and night, although that will not stop Tamara from coming and going. She may be able to take Jaderac with her.”
“What could they be up to?”
“We know Jaderac is a sorcerer, and he specialises in necromancy. He must be planning something in that line. I have warned military intelligence about that. I have assigned your friends Weasel and the Barbarian to make contact with the local underworld to see if they can find any leads that way. I have worked a few divination spells and learned a few things that way.”
“What have you learned?”
“That there has been a quite extraordinary build-up of necromantic energies in the city since we have been away.”
“Someone is planning on raising the dead?”
“I don’t know. And I can’t pinpoint the source but there is a definite cloud of energies at the darker end of the magical spectrum in the city’s aura right now. It is getting stronger every day. It’s most likely the by-product of someone working ritual magic somewhere.”
“Can’t you pin it down?”
“I might be able to, but by then it might be too late. The coronation is only a few days away now.”
“You think they intend to prevent it?”
“It would be the logical thing for them to do.”
“Then how are you going to get to the bottom of this?”
“The old fashioned way. By spending a lot of money and talking to a lot of people. You and your friends are going to do that anyway. I will keep working away at my divinations.”
“You are sure about this?” Rik asked. The vodka burned as it went down his throat. Uri wiped his mouth and his huge handlebar moustache with the sleeve of his left arm then he looked at Rik’s empty glass and poured him another one. He poured one for himself.
“To keep it company,” he said. At this time of day it was quiet in the Nag’s Head. There were very few people around. None of them could get into this alcove anyway. The Barbarian and some of Uri’s toughest boys were out there to prevent that.
“You sure about this?” Rik repeated. Partially it was the alcohol that made him do so. Partially it was the fact that Uri seemed more interested in the vodka than he was in telling Rik what he knew. Uri snapped the glass back to his mouth, downing it in a single gulp. Rik did the same, drawing on the spells to neutralise poison, to counter the effect of the booze and any drugs that Uri might have put in it. He did not exactly trust the Gang Lord.
“Of course, I am sure. As sure as anybody can be about these things. My boys have been selling bodies to some so-called alchemist. They thought it was the usual stuff, you know, for dissection and showing to medical students. They thought they might be able to use that to put a little bite on the guy, but when they tried it, he just laughed at them, and told them that if they tried anything they would die very slowly and painfully. They told him he had been smoking too much black lotus, which he had been too, since his pupils were the size of plates and his skin was a sallow yellow. He got mad and showed them a walking corpse, and told them they would become just like that if they told anybody. He had friends in high places, he said. Well that’s what Standa and Rudi said anyway. Nobody believed them. They were famous liars.”
“So why should you believe them now?”
“No one has seen them in days. They were supposed to show up with their share of the take a couple of night’s back but they never did.”
“Maybe they legged it with your money.”
Uri looked at him and guffawed. He poured more vodka. “They would not dare. And they would not leave their families behind either. Standa’s wife Lucie says he was pretty strange the last night she saw him. Eyes were blank. Seemed to be in a trance. He just walked out, never came back. Kept muttering something about graves.”
“If you want to talk about blank eyes take a look into the Barbarian’s sometimes.”
Uri had another drink. He did not offer Rik one. It did not seem to have too much effect on him, except that he was becoming more aggressive. “Look, pretty boy, I don’t care if you believe me or not. It’s just my friend Weasel there brought word that you and the Taloreans were looking out for just this sort of story so I mentioned it to him.”
The voices whispered to Rik that he should kill this arrogant fool, and drink his life. He forced them down. “Maybe you made this up because you heard there was money to be made for such tales.”
“Yes, and maybe I have nothing better to do with my time than sit here and tell these stories to you. However I have other ways of making money. This was a favour for a friend. One I can see is not much appreciated.”
“Calm down,” said Rik. He did not need any trouble with the local gangs. “You know where this bodysnatcher had his premises?”
Uri nodded. “My boys have had it staked out since I sent you the invitation.”
“Then here’s the deal. We’ll check this out, and if there’s anything in it, you’ll be owed. Money, favours, whatever you need. We don’t forget the people who help us.”
Uri looked as if he was considering asking for money up front, and remembering that he had claimed he was doing this as a favour. Eventually, he nodded. “Tell your masters to check out the basement of the old ruined tenement on Angel of Hope Street. The whole area was wrecked when you boys came to town but there’s still a few beggars around there.”
“Why don’t you arrange for somebody to show us the way?”
Uri nodded. “I can do that.”
Sardec lay on his back and looked up at the bright moonbeams slipping in through the chinks in the curtain. Sleep would not come. Rena stirred beside him. He lay still, not wanting to wake her. Soft footsteps sounded on the stair and he sat upright. Someone knocked on the door. Sardec rose, slipped the lock and looked out. Sergeant Hef stood there.
“What is it?” Sardec asked.
“Weasel and the Barbarian just came in, sir. Lady Asea is below. Looks like they found a lead on the necromancers everybody is looking for. Her Ladyship would like you to lead the lads out and investigate.”
"Can't it wait till morning, Sergeant?" Sardec knew that it could not, but he felt he needed to vent his exasperation.
"I don't think so, sir," said the Sergeant. "They say it’s important."
"All right then, lead on," said Sardec.
“What is it?” Rena asked from the bed.
“Duty calls,” said Sardec
Sardec trudged through the snow, wondering what was going on. The raggedly dressed men with Asea had led his unit to the remains of a collapsed building. There were some signs of burning but it looked like it had fallen when hit by something big. This whole street had suffered during the siege; a large section of the city was abandoned now by all but scavengers and beggars and worse things. There was a strange smell in the air, a hint of something he had encountered before, something disturbing and strange that reminded him of the graveyard encounter with the ghouls. The moment his nostrils twitched he reached for his pistol. Sardec dreaded the presence of ghouls.
“This is the place,” said the more villainous of the two men. He was a Kharadrean human of the lowest type. This war had certainly given them some strange allies. He checked his pistol and made sure all the men had truesilver bullets loaded. He had been told to expect sorcery. The stump of his missing hand itched where the gutta-percha padding met flesh, a constant reminder of how dangerous evil magic could be. He looked at Asea who stood there with her half-breed lover. She was garbed for war, in her strange living leather armour and silver facemask. Sardec lifted a lantern.
“Wait here,” Sardec said, just to let everyone know he was in charge, and then gestured for the Foragers to enter the ruins. There was still a ceiling overhead although tumbled at a crazy angle. The bright moon shone through the gaps, illuminating an interior partially covered by snow. Shafts of silver light speared the ground in a dozen places. Wreckage lay everywhere — broken furniture, torn clothes. At the back of the room was an open trapdoor of the kind that would normally have run down into a coal cellar. As he approached it, the smell got worse; there was a hint of rot, and chemical bleach, as if someone had set up a tannery inside an old abattoir.
He looked at the men. They were pale and nervous and looked to him for leadership. He picked up the lantern with his hook and made for the stairwell. The Sergeant and the Barbarian and Weasel fell into step behind him.
Blood, he thought, as he descended into the gloom. Blood and chemicals. The stairs took him down into a large cellar. Something squelched beneath his foot as he reached the bottom. The stink of rot followed a bellow's wheeze. His footing was soft and slippery and he realised why soon enough. He was standing on a dead body. More dead bodies lay round about. They were oddly pale. He got off the corpse, looked around and saw that the flesh was white, the eyeballs grey. There were faded bruise marks in the arms and neck.
"No blood," said Weasel. His voice was sombre. "Something drained them of blood."
"What's that?" Sardec asked pointing to the large metal tub, bigger than a wine-vat, that dominated the centre of the cellar. It seemed like they had encountered nothing but dark sorcery this whole year, ever since they had ventured into the valley of Deep Achenar and fought with the followers of the Spider God and the thing they had worshipped. Sardec shivered. He had lost his hand during that encounter, and almost his life. It had made him wary. He wished he still had his truesilver blade, but that had been turned to slag during the final battle in the abandoned city.
He looked around the walls. More corpses hung from hooks, some split like pigs at a butcher's shop, others still intact but pale, so pale. His skin crawled. He fought the urge to run from the place. If he had been alone, he might have, but it would not do to let the men see he was afraid, so he strode forwards towards the vat, conscious even as he did so of the fear that gnawed at his stomach, as if a massive rat were in there trying to bite its way through to his heart.
He heard something and paused, shocked. One of the corpses had shifted on its hook. For a moment, he feared that it had come alive, and was about to attack him. Memories of the Nerghul, the strange sorcerous assassin Lord Jaderac had sent to kill the Lady Asea back in Morven, gibbered at the back of his mind. That thing had almost killed him despite the presence of a squad of troops and the most powerful sorceress in the western world.
Sardec moved closer, set the lantern down nearby and looked into the vat. It was filled with a reddish black congealed fluid. Blood, he thought, with chemicals added to it to keep it liquid. There seemed to be something deep below, a vaguely humanoid outline that moved disturbingly, as if currents in the fluid were shifting its limbs. Heat rose from the vat and it bubbled obscenely, sending odd little farts of chemical exhalation into the air.
Sardec bent down and looked below the vat. It stood on metal legs. There was a mechanism that looked like a boiler; pipes connected it to the bottom of the tub. The chemical smell was more intense.
Something touched his forehead, wetting the brim of his tricorne hat before dribbling down onto his head and hands. A chill ran down his spine. He looked up and saw that the fluid had slopped over the edge of the vat. Something large and spidery crawled into view. It took him a moment to realise it was a hand.
Sardec sprang upright and brought his hook down in a vicious arc so that it pierced the back of the hand. Reddish fluid oozed forth from it to flow back into the vat. A head emerged from the liquid, to be followed by a broad pair of naked shoulders and a massive burly torso. He slashed at it with his hook and drew more blood. The thing made no noise and reached for him. He sprang backwards and away.
"What the hell?" the Barbarian shouted. Sardec looked around. The intact corpses on the hooks had started to move, flailing their limbs as they attempted to dislodge themselves from their hanging places and get to grip with the intruders in their domain. One by one, like obscene fruits dropping from an overloaded tree, they hit the cellar floor and began to advance towards the startled soldiers.
Sardec snatched the lantern up in his hook. "Back!" he shouted, "Out of the cellar." He knew it was imperative that they not be trapped down here. Once they were on the surface they could call on the rest of the Foragers for help. If they failed to get away, these night-stalking things would emerge and take the troops by surprise. He was not going to allow that.
He raised his pistol and fired it at the head of the thing in the vat. The bullet caught it squarely between the eyes. The whole back of its head exploded. Brain jelly splattered one of the animated corpses hanging behind it. The undead creature vanished beneath the surface of the vat like a drowning swimmer. A long-barrelled rifle spoke thunderously as Weasel shot down another walking dead man. The Barbarian raced into the room, blade held in each hand, filled with desperate fury and desire to get to grips with his undead foes.
"Back!" Sardec roared. "Get back I tell you! We don't want to get trapped down here!"
The Barbarian had already reached one of the foes. He slashed it with his left blade and buried the right in its throat. The creature kept on coming, despite the terrible wounds.
"Get back, you great northern idiot!" shouted Sergeant Hef, raising his own rifle, and taking a shot. He was not as accurate as Weasel in the poor light and it thunked into one of the hanging sides of human beef, sending it swinging on its hook. Weasel was already at the top of the stairs, reloading, and getting ready to cover his companions as they retreated. Whatever else Sardec thought of him, he gave the former poacher credit for presence of mind.
He strode over to the Barbarian, yelling at him to retreat. He prepared to slash at any walking dead man with his hook. He was here until the Barbarian got out. Under these circumstances he was not going to leave any of his men behind. "You can't kill them, northlander. They are already dead."
The sense of this seemed to cut through the Barbarian's fear-induced fury. He gave a wide scared grin and began to back away towards the stairs. His eyes seemed too wide, his skin too pale, as if something of the evil magic in this place had already started to affect him. Sardec prayed this was not the case.
He let the Barbarian slip past him, not quite sure why, save that he felt it was his duty. The big northerner was undoubtedly much more capable of taking on one of these things than he was. Weasel's rifle roared again and another one of the dead men went staggering back to fall back into the bubbling vat. Sardec watched its blood-caked feet jerk spastically for a moment before it vanished below the surface. An image of some sort of horrid mating taking place down there filled his mind. Disgusted he pushed it aside as he backed towards the stairs.
"Get out," he yelled at Weasel. "Go rouse the others. We need every man we can get."
Another thought struck him. It might be best to try and blow these evil things apart. "Get grenades ready as well."
He risked a glance over his shoulder and saw that Weasel understood and was already departing. Sergeant Hef was right behind. The Barbarian had already begun to scamper up the stairs. Sardec hoped he did not trip. Now would not be a good time to be caught in a tangle on the steps. He gave his attention back to the oncoming undead. Their eyes glowed with a reddish light and their bodies seemed to exhale putrid air with every step. It was as if simple motion forced rotten gases from their corrupted lungs out of their mouths and the gaping holes in their pale naked bodies. Some of them had very long nails, almost claws. He had absolutely no doubts that those talons could tear his flesh or gouge out his eyes. He had no intention of remaining down here to test this empirically if he could help it.
The corpses moved noticeably faster now, like sleepers reaching full wakefulness after a doze. One or two of them lumbered forward. Their balance was not good, and they weaved like drunken men, crashing into one another, finding only unstable footing on the corpses strewing the floor. Sardec put one foot back on the stairs and began to move up them. He slipped his pistol into his sash and transferred the lantern to his good hand. He began to swing it backwards and forwards in front of him, hoping that it would keep the creatures at bay. The light fluttered but remained bright.
What had they found here, he wondered? Had this been the residence of a necromancer, performing his unholy arts hidden from his neighbours? Or was it the temple of some murderous cult who re-animated their victims for their own unholy purposes? Sardec knew there were many secret Brotherhoods throughout the land, and some of them dabbled in very dark arts indeed. He thought of the Prophet Zarahel and his followers who had almost succeeded in unleashing the Spider God Uran Ultar. Had they stumbled over a cult like that here?
He remembered the Lady Asea's theory that Zarahel’s work might have been sponsored by Talorea's enemies. He recalled also the Nerghul that had been unleashed against them in Morven. Perhaps this was yet another site where the agents of the Dark Empire had been at work. Perhaps those things trying to break free below had been created with a military purpose. Perhaps there were more places like this. If that were really the case, this whole huge city might prove to be nothing but a vast trap. For a moment the image of whole regiments of undead troops emerging into the night filled Sardec's mind. Perhaps they could not be killed. Perhaps they would sweep all before them. Or perhaps they were only the shock-troops of some new sorcerous threat. He pictured the Nerghul or a host of creatures like it emerging to lead the horde of darkly resurrected warriors.
Get a grip, he told himself. So far this nest is the only one you know of. It's the only threat you can see. Deal with it.
The dead came ever closer. Sardec wondered if he could make it to the head of the stairs.
"You are going in there, with all those walking corpses?" Rik knew Asea was going to. He was just trying to delay the inevitable. The soldiers who had emerged from the cellar looked terrified. Sardec was still in there playing the hero.
"There can’t be more than a few of them, and I am not going in alone — you and Karim are going with me."
"I was afraid you were going to say that." In the back of his mind, the voices whispered warnings. They did not like the walking dead. There was no nourishment left in them.
Asea produced a sphere from her collection of sorcerous adjuncts and screwed it into the end of a brass wand. With a word, she lit it. A soft glow emerged from the depths of the crystal. She let out a long breath and gestured for them to proceed into the tumbled building.
"Let's go," said Asea.
Karim virtually sprang to the head of the stair. Rik moved more slowly to follow him. The Barbarian pressed along behind. He might be keen to impress Lady Asea, but he was not that keen. He moved to the head of the stairs and looked down. With the Barbarian blocking most of Asea's light behind him, corners of the room were shadowy, but even so he did not like what he saw.
Sardec crouched on the stairs. Walking corpses shambled towards him. Asea raised her wand and spoke a word of power. Chained lightning danced within the chamber, flickering from animated body to animated body. A smell of frying meat and ozone filled the air. The walking dead slumped to the floor. Whatever spark of infernal fire had animated them was gone. Rik surveyed the scene with cold eyes while the voices whispered panicked phrases in his head. He did not know what had frightened them more, Asea’s lightning or the sight that greeted his eyes.
The chamber was a butcher's shop full of human corpses. In the centre of the room was a tub full of fluid that roiled agitatedly.
Karim sprang lightly down the stairs and Rik followed more cautiously, treading as silently as ever he had done as a thief in Sorrow and paying just as much attention to his search for hidden traps. Karim moved around the room looking for any enemies.
Rik moved cautiously towards the bubbling vat. He held his sword ready. Fear churned in his stomach. The voices gibbered as if they sensed his fear and responded to it.
His eyes had grown accustomed to the gloom now. He wished his nose would get used to the stink, but he doubted it ever would. He paused a moment and glanced around. It was like being in a butcher's shop, except that instead of sides of beef from cattle, the hanging bodies were those of men and women. He shook his head, as for the first time he really considered what had gone on here.
Someone had worked with all this stuff. It had not just happened to be here. It was the product of a lot of work and a lot of preparation. Someone had spent a good deal of time and money creating all this. What sort of diseased mind would do that? There would have been a time, not so long ago when Rik might have had trouble answering that question, but not now. He had encountered too many wicked sorcerers and their creations to have any trouble with that. He knew there were people who would do anything for power. There were those who would work dark miracles to satisfy their own curiosity and bolster their own egos.
He peered down into the vat. The fluid churned and he thought he made out two dark shapes down there. An almost overpowering urge to bend closer and look in filled his mind. He fought it back. He knew the price such inquisitiveness could exact from bitter experience. He was somehow not surprised when a head broke surface. He found himself face to face with a pale animated corpse, blood dripping from its hair and open mouth and eye-sockets. It reached for him, and instinctively he brought the blade up into the guard position as Karim has taught him. The point of his blade almost touched the hellish thing's chest.
It did not stop the creature. It pushed forward, trying to clamber out of the blood-filled tub despite the point piercing its breast. Rik leaned forward, putting all his weight on his front leg as he drove the blade home. Dark fluid flowed. There was an odd sizzling sound and the smell of burning flesh as the magical blade bit deep. Wisps of smoke flowed from the wound, more reddish black fluid dribbled from the corners of the corpse's mouth. It slid forward along the blade reaching for him. Its yellow-toothed, grey-gummed smile was ghastly, for there was no expression in its filmed, dead eyes.
Rik sprang back, ripping his blade free. From out of the gloom something streaked by. It buried itself in one eye of the creature and came out the other side. A moment later Rik realised it was a black fletched arrow. Barely a heartbeat later, another one took out the other eye. The corpse tumbled forward and lay still on the ground.
Everyone stood frozen like statues for a long minute while they waited to see what would happen next. Eventually Asea broke the tableau and advanced to inspect the corpse and the bubbling vat of hell-broth it had emerged from. She sniffed the air.
She swept over to the nearest of the corpses. The stink was awful. There was a suggestion of rot and chemicals and something else, curdled milk perhaps. Asea bent over the corpse, took out a small steel pin from her purse and collected a sample of the nauseating fluid. She studied it quite closely, sniffing it. Rik wondered how she could do that without showing any signs of illness. He supposed that after two millennia of practicing sorcery you could get used to anything.
"What is it, Milady?"
"Necroplasma," she said.
"Necroplasma. It is a substance used by alchemists and necromancers when re-animating corpses. It is based on blood and used instead of it. You drain the blood from a corpse, fill it full of chemicals, perform certain unholy rituals over it and then re-inject it into the dead body to animate it."
"It's obviously been used here then."
"Nothing much escapes your keen eye, does it, Rik?" He looked at her sharply. Asea was not often given to the use of sarcasm. Perhaps she was feeling more strain than she showed.
"What is going on here, Milady? Why would anybody want to make these things?"
"A good question, Rik, and one to which there are several answers. The most obvious one is that they were making soldiers from the corpses."
"One cellar full would hardly be enough to hamper our whole army."
"Indeed, therefore it would be perhaps be wise to assume that there is more than one hiding hole for these things."
"Perhaps it was only one Necromancer going about his business."
"It would be nice to think that, but these days I find myself overly suspicious."
"If it's any consolation I share that trait. What are we going to do now?"
Asea examined the alchemical furnace under the vat. It was a complex device and she studied the workmanship almost admiringly. "We shall empty this vat and bring this equipment up into the light. I want to study it and see what clues I can find about its builder."
Rik wondered if that was the only reason she wanted to study it. In his association with the Lady Asea, he had discovered she was possessed of a certain fascination with the darkest of lore. There were times when he found that quite worrying about his patron.
He moved round the corner of the room. Looking behind the hanging corpses, he saw that there was another door that had been concealed by their bulk.
“I think I’ve found something,” he said. He picked the lock and opened the door. It swung ominously open.
The area Rik had found was much bigger than the cellar, and it was full of machinery. Asea pushed through with her wand and illuminated the area. Rik made out a vast complex of brass pipes and alembics. There were more corpses on tables. Someone had been dissecting one. Others had pipes stuck into their arms and had a strange shrunken look.
“What now?” Rik asked. He did not like the look of this in the slightest. There was something very strange about the bodies on the tables. He moved over to the one on the dissection table. It had a weird elongated look and its skin had a scaly quality. Vestigial fangs filled its mouth.
“Bloody hell,” said the Barbarian, pushing up behind Rik. “It’s a ghoul. Somebody’s made a fair mess of it too.”
He was not wrong. The flesh of the stomach had been flayed away, and various organs had been removed. Judging by the expression on its face, it had been alive at the time. Or as alive as such creatures ever got. Blackened, diseased-looking kidneys and other entrails half-filled the abdomen still. There was something odd about it. It took him a while to realise what.
“No blood,” he said.
“No bodily fluids of any kind, I would guess,” said Asea. She pointed at the pipes that ran into the bodies. Rik followed her gesture and noticed that the metalwork all flowed towards a complex of vats and alchemical engines.
“Why?” Rik asked. “Is somebody draining their bodies to make potions?”
“I don’t know. What could anybody hope to gain from the bodily fluids of ghouls? I know of no spells or alchemical serums that require them. I don’t like this at all. Everything here is in working order. It looks as if the owner just left.”
“Perhaps we should put a guard on the place?”
Asea nodded, preoccupied. She began to search the place. She found some leather bound books on the shelves at the back of the laboratory.
“Anything useful?” Rik asked.
“I don’t know. This seems to be gibberish. It’s most likely written in some personal cipher. It may take some time to break.”
“Malkior claimed that there were many Thanatomancers at work in the Dark Empire. Is this the sort of thing they would do?”
Asea nodded. “It has the feel of their peculiar madness. I just can’t work out what exactly this was intended for.”
“But you are going to find out.”
“Our lives may depend on that.”
The voices whispered in Rik’s head. They liked this place. They really liked it. He shuddered and made his way out, even as Asea called for Sardec and gave him instructions to see that this place was sealed off.
Jaderac watched Asea and her minions emerge from the building and cursed. The warning from his brothers had come just in time. A few minutes later and he would have been found in situ, not hiding in the shadows of this ruin. Fortunately most of what they needed was away now, shifted by dead of night to abandoned mausoleums in the Grand Cemetery, the contents already being put to good use in preparation for tomorrow night’s ritual. At least there was nothing in the lab that would lead back to him.
He pulled his cloak tight against the cold and seethed with fury, wondering who had betrayed him. Was it that dolt Sardontine? Or that treacherous little bitch Tamara? She had been playing her cards very close to her chest recently. Rumour had it that her father was in Halim, but Jaderac was inclined to discount that. What would he be doing here? He should be heading back to Askander to contest control of the Brotherhood with Lord Xephan, his replacement as Chancellor and as head of their secret order.
He looked at Asea and her lover and that arrogant cripple Sardec and wished that his new Nerghul was with him. He would have set it on them, and had it slay the lot of them. Even though it seemed flawed and slow compared to the first one, it would be more than capable of killing all of them. But his creature was up in the cemetery, guarding the stores for the ritual against any interlopers. In any case, he told himself, he would not risk it now, not when he was so close to ultimate success.
Tomorrow, after the completion of his great plan, there would be time to settle all scores.
Rik lay on the couch in Asea’s apartments and stared at his feet. The massive old clock ticked loudly. He felt useless. Even the voices seemed depressed. They murmured quietly at the back of his mind, but failed to intrude fully onto his consciousness. To distract himself, he ran through one of the sorcerous exercises that Asea had taught him, calming himself, touching his inner strength. It seemed to have dwindled a little. Perhaps this was how it was with thanatomantic energy. Perhaps it dissipated over days and weeks on disuse.
He felt threatened, as if they were all on the edge of some great abyss. Kathea’s coronation was tomorrow and they were still no closer to working out their enemy’s plan. Asea had been closeted in her chambers for all day and most of last night, and had not emerged. Only Karim had entered to take her food. She turned away all messengers. She talked to no one. She seemed driven in a way that he had never seen her before. Sometimes he has caught a glimpse of her through the door, and she looked haggard. All he could so was sleep here, outside her chambers, like a faithful watchdog.
He was afraid, and not just for himself. He sensed that Malkior was coming, and he would kill Asea and him too if he got the chance. Rik had prepared for that eventuality as best he could. His hidden blade was poisoned. He had prepared a truesilver bullet in his concealed pistol. He carried another pistol with another special bullet. He had the blade Asea had given him. He knew they would mostly likely not be enough. Even the stolen energy of the Sea Devil would most likely not be enough, but he was determined that if Malkior came he would be as well prepared as he could be. He was not going to be taken so easily this time.
The door to Asea’s chamber swung open. She emerged. Her face was pale and drawn. Her eyes looked huge. Her pupils were dilated from the potions she took against fatigue.
“I have solved it,” she said softly.
“You’ve broken the code?”
“I did that hours ago. Now I have translated the notes.”
“What do they say?”
“The machines were used for preparing a special serum, a component in a necromantic ritual.”
“The book says that?”
“No but reading between the lines of the descriptions of the experiments and extrapolating from them, I am sure I know what the serum is to be used for. Whoever created it intends to raise the dead and do something worse. There is some component of the ghoul’s disease that can be used to make undeath spread like a plague. They’ll need to do it soon because the serum won’t hold its potency for long.”
“An army of the walking dead, that can infect the living?”
“Yes. I think so. All they need is bodies and a potent locus of necromantic energies.”
“If they intend to make an army, they will need a lot of corpses. As for energies…” Rik said. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he knew exactly where those could be found. “The Grand Cemetery.”
Asea began inscribing a note to General Azaar. “Go and get Lieutenant Sardec,” she said. “I think we should visit the graveyard as soon as possible.”
The voices whispered and gibbered and sometimes he thought he could make out words. I smell death. Death and sorcery. Things stir beneath the ground. Wrong place. Wrong place, whispered the voices. A thought insinuated itself into Rik’s mind.
“What if this is just a distraction? What if Malkior is already here and makes a bid on the Queen’s life? He could get in easily enough while we are trying to deal with this.”
Asea’s features froze for a moment as she considered his words. “You might be right, but there’s nothing I can do about it now. If Jaderac plans to raise an army of the dead, I have to stop him.”
“I will stop Malkior,” said Rik. “At least I will try.”
There was silence for a moment. Rik wondered if she thought he was simply trying to get out of this duty. Surely she knew him better than that right now.
“I don’t think you could beat Malkior if you met him.”
“There will be soldiers here, and somebody has to protect Kathea. Otherwise there may be no Queen to crown. I can sense shadowgates. At least I might be able to warn the guards.”
“You could be wrong.”
“If I am wrong we have lost nothing. If I am right…”
“Very well. Good luck,” she said and swept out the door.
“To you too,” Rik said to her departing back.
“This is getting to be a habit,” said Sardec. The Foragers marched at double time towards the cemetery. They had been reinforced with all the soldiers of the Seventh that Sardec could have rounded up at short notice. Some of them were groggy with sleep. Some drunk. None of them looked happy.
“I am sorry to disturb your rest again, Lieutenant,” said Asea. She spoke in the High tongue of the Terrarchs so none of the men could understand. Once more she was garbed for war. She held her glowing wand. Chained lightning glittered within the blue gem at its tip. “But I can assure you this is important. The safety of Queen Kathea and our entire army may depend on it.”
“There is a plan to stop the coronation tomorrow?” He replied in the same language. If there was something she wanted kept secret it was doubtless for good reason.
“Unless we find what we are looking for soon, there may not be a coronation. By sunrise the whole city may be in the grip of plague and something worse than plague.” The night suddenly seemed very dark and cold. The snow crunched ominously beneath their boots.
“What do you mean?”
“I think our old friend Lord Jaderac is performing a ritual right now that will raise all the bodies in this graveyard and turn them into an unstoppable army — he is or some of his associates are.”
Sardec felt a shudder of fear pass up his spine but he kept his face straight and his tone nonchalant. “You are talking of sorcery of the darkest sort, Milady.”
“I am, Lieutenant. Does it surprise you that our enemies would use it?”
“These days nothing would surprise me, Milady.”
The gates of the Grand Cemetery loomed ahead of them. Sardec shuddered remembering the ghouls they had encountered here. The memory of them was as vivid and as frightening as if it had only happened last night.
“What are we looking for?” he asked her.
“It will be easy enough to recognise when you see it, Lieutenant. Look for Terrarchs working sorcery. I would not be surprised if one of them was Lord Jaderac and another was Lady Tamara.”
“What shall we do if we see them?” Sardec suspected he already knew. Her answer came as no surprise.
“Don’t take any chances. Kill them — if you can.”
Sardec nodded and began bellowing orders to the soldiers. They were to split into squads and search the graveyard for intruders. If they saw anyone performing rituals they were to shoot on sight.
“Just hope there’s nobody in there having a funeral,” muttered the Barbarian.
“If they are, they’ll soon be having a few more,” said Weasel.
Sardec watched the soldiers fanning out among the gravestones. He had a bad feeling about this. The night was misty. Frost glittered on gravestone and tree branch. Only occasionally did the light of the moon shine through.
“What was that?” Asea a