W King

The Serpent Tower


Chapter One

<p>Chapter One</p>

“What happened to the bloody dancing girls, Halfbreed?” Toadface whispered, gazing out of the thick undergrowth into the surrounding trees. Rik raised a finger to his lips. If the ugly, bulging-eyed little man did not shut up he might get both their throats cut. There could be enemies twenty yards away. These woods were dense enough to hide a regiment.

Rik understood why Toadface was pissed off. This scouting mission should have been unnecessary. There was not supposed to be any fighting at this point. The Talorean army had expected to be met by friendly forces when they crossed the border into Kharadrea. This province was supposedly devoted to Queen Kathea, their ally. Its overlord was her most loyal Lieutenant and uncle, the Prince Ilmarec.

On the march through Broken Tooth Pass there had been much discussion about the welcome they would receive. Dancing girls and wine had been the talk of the entire army. Instead they had been met with ambushes and cavalry raids since they had entered the lowlands on this side of the border. The villages had all been abandoned and the flocks driven away.

It seemed things were a little different than they had been led to believe, which was why Rik now found himself lying under this bush, waiting for Weasel and the Barbarian to return with news of what they had found up ahead. He did not expect the tidings to be good. He never did. He had been in the army too long. On the plus side, at least the rain had stopped. There had been rather too much of it for his liking recently. Some summer, he thought.

“It was supposed to be simple,” muttered Toadface. He licked his lips with his extraordinarily long tongue. His pockmarked face looked downright sinister, like some crossbreed of a decadent Elder race and a depraved human. Legend had enough of those living in these woods. Before the coming of the Terrarchs, they had been home to the legendary Serpent Men. Their ghosts were said to haunt this forest.

Rik drew his finger across his throat hoping that this time his companion would get the message. Toadface gave him a disgusted look but kept his mouth shut.

All around him, the Foragers were strung out in a long line through the woods. Their green tunics blended in. Aside from the odd murmured complaint they were silent. If he had not known better Rik would never have guessed that there were nearly forty men and a Terrarch nearby.

Even their inhuman commanding officer, Lieutenant Sardec, seemed to have learned something. He had shucked his scarlet officer’s tunic for a green shirt that blended in well with the early summer leaves. Adaana knew no one would have any difficulty recognising him or his voice. Sardec was a Terrarch, one of the world’s masters. He was tall and eldritchly thin with pointed ears and almond shaped eyes. His hair was fine as spun silver. In place of the hand he had lost in combat with the demon god Uran Ultar, he now sported a vicious hook. Combined with his recent scars, it made him look quite menacing.

Rik looked at him with mixed feelings. Sardec had persecuted Rik for being a half-breed, a thing that Sardec appeared to think was an insult to him and all his dragon-riding ancestors. Rik had hated him in return. Rik still loathed Sardec but the officer seemed to have been changed, Rik was not sure what by. For some reason, the petty harassment had stopped.

Perhaps it was the loss of his hand. Perhaps it was their encounter with the demons beneath the mountain two months ago. Perhaps it was something else entirely. Recently Sardec’s behaviour had been restrained as a Terrarch’s ever got towards humans. He had won the respect of the men in the hellish tunnels of the lost city of Achenar, and perhaps it was that respect that had changed him. The company expected him to behave like a leader, and now he did.

The urge to say something about this to Leon passed through Rik’s mind, and he almost spoke, until he remembered that Leon was two months dead, killed by an Elder World demon in the same battle in which Sardec had lost his hand. Even after all this time, Rik was still not used to the loss.

He had known Leon for as long as he could remember, since they had fled the vast draughty halls of the Temple orphanage in Sorrow to become thieves together. They had joined the Queen’s Army together and fought all the way through the Clockmaker’s rebellion side by side. It did not seem possible that Leon was gone, aged only eighteen, the victim of a monster from the old darkness that Rik himself had helped set free.

Guilt stabbed him. He would never see Leon’s wizened urchin features again, never watch him chew on his battered clay pipe or put his lucky feather in his cap. There was no one left to watch his back, and these days Rik felt the need for that more than ever. Things had become more dangerous since Lord Azaar had taken command and the army had crossed the border from Talorea.

Weasel and the Barbarian appeared. They seemed to have materialised as if summoned by sorcery. Rik was not surprised by Weasel’s stealth. The former poacher was the best hunter in the company, and this company was made up of men who were very good at woodcraft. Weasel was tall and skinny and balding with a long neck, a large Adam’s apple, a jutting blade of a nose and starved, cunning looking features. His uniform hung loose and ragged on his body. He clutched his rifle in one bony hand, and a roasted chicken in the other.

The Barbarian was something different. It was unnatural that anyone so large could move so quietly. He was half again taller than Rik, and far heavier. A waterfall of thick blonde hair fringed his bald crown. A massive walrus moustache covered the lower part of his face. He was a trifle more gaunt than he had been, but that was the only after-effect of the wound he had taken beneath Achenar that showed. The Magister’s healing spells had been very effective, but that was no surprise.

Such spells relied in part on the patient’s own vitality, and that was something the Barbarian had to spare. He radiated raw strength like a prize bull. Perhaps there really was something to his boasting about the hardihood of his people. The Barbarian was an exile from the snowbound lands of the far north, a place never conquered by the Terrarchs, a fact of which he was inordinately proud even when Weasel pointed out that there was nothing up there the Terrarchs could possibly want.

The two of them stood before Sardec. They had found his hiding place without apparent effort.

“Well?” Sardec asked. His voice was quiet but it carried. There was no mistaking it for a human voice either. It had a sweet metallic tone and the accents of the Terrarch ruling class.

“There are men up ahead, sir,” said Weasel. He could not avoid giving the impression of insolence even when he was trying not to. There was something insinuating about his face. “They had a couple of our horse troopers tied to a tree and were doing unfriendly things with hot knives.”

“You are sure these were our men?”

“One was Sergeant Kalmek of the 17 ^ ^th Hussars, sir. I took money from him at shuffle only two nights ago. He still owes me.”

“You’re gambling debts are of no concern,” said Sardec. He winced slightly, as he always did at allusions to gambling debts. No doubt they reminded him of Mama Horne’s parlour back in Redtower where he and his officer friends used to slum it up. Rik fought unsuccessfully with his bitterness. Mama Horne’s was where Sardec had picked up Rena. It was where Rik had picked her up too. He tried to tell himself he was not jealous and failed.

Weasel looked away from the officer. His expression was plainly visible to Rik and seemed to say, the debts are important to me.

“Anything else?” said Sardec.

“There was a large fortified manor near the ford, sir,” said Weasel. “The gates were open and only a few men were inside. Everybody else seemed to have headed down to the river to watch the fun.”

“Where did you get the chicken, soldier?” Sardec asked.

“It was on a spit, sir. I helped myself to it when I walked into the enemy camp.”

“You walked into the enemy camp?” Incredulity was evident in the Lieutenant’s voice.

“I took the colours from a sentry and decided to have a sniff about, sir. Nobody paid me the slightest attention. They were all too busy listening to Kalmek howl.” Rik did not doubt that Weasel had done exactly that. He was fearless to the point of madness, and doubtless his sheer nonchalance had helped him carry the bluff off. “Would you like some chicken, sir? It’s very good.”

Sardec looked at the proffered roast as if Weasel’s hand were full of excrement. No Terrarch would want food that a human had nibbled at. He shook his head slowly and shifted his attention to the Barbarian. The big man chewed at the end of his moustache and then said; “It’s like Weasel says, sir. There was about fifty of them. All in colours too.”

Sardec raised an eyebrow. “What colours.”

“They had blue armbands.”

“That seems a little unlikely,” said Sardec.

“They all had them, sir,” said Weasel. He stuck his hand in his pocket and took out a long strip of grubby blue cloth. It could indeed be a makeshift declaration of allegiance to the cause of those who supported Queen Emperor Arachne of Sardea.

“This is news,” said Sardec. Indeed it was. No one had supposed a Blue army to be within a hundred miles. It seemed their intelligence was very out of date. This did not really surprise Rik. Even with scrying crystals and dragon-mounted scouts, the army could always manage to make mistakes. It seemed not even famous Generals like Azaar were immune to them.

“You are sure there are only fifty of them?”

“Well, sir, the Barbarian here has some difficulty counting more than his fingers, but I reckon there was at least fifty, maybe more.” The Barbarian scowled but there were faint chuckles from the woods, which doubtless explained why Sardec did not discipline Weasel. So close to combat anything that raised morale was good. Sardec looked round at monkey-faced Sergeant Hef. The two seemed to be reading each other’s minds.

“Let us go and free our prisoners,” said Sardec. “And take a few ourselves. Doubtless the Lord Azaar will want to talk to them.”

The word rippled down the line. The Foragers prepared to advance. Up ahead there were enemies. Rik was glad when Weasel and the Barbarian dropped into the line beside him. They were dangerous men but he had been through many a desperate scrape with them.

“Want a bit of chicken?” Weasel asked. He ripped off a drumstick and offered it Rik.

“Why not?” Rik said. It tasted succulent. He tried to ignore the thoughts of condemned men and last meals that flickered through his mind.


Chapter Two

<p>Chapter Two</p>

Silently the Foragers moved through the dim forest.

Ahead Rik heard screaming and the cheers of men and the flow of water. He slapped a mosquito on his hand, splattering it in a bubble of red blood. Sweat stained his clothes. His heart raced. His mouth felt dry and he was aware of every speck of dust drifting in the columns of sunlight between the trees. He tasted the odd rich air of the woods. Moist fern fronds brushed his legs. He felt truly and utterly alive, as he always did when he knew that he might soon be dead. His whole life had shrunk into a narrow tunnel. Ahead of him lay violence and bloodletting and a terrible place he would need to pass through to get to any future he might have.

A small animal part of his mind gibbered that he could still turn and flee, run off into the woods and wait for the eye of the coming storm of violence to pass over him. Another equally animal part lusted to run forward and plunge his bayonet into warm living flesh. His true self hung suspended between the two poles.

He was not going to run. Not while his whole unit advanced. He was not scared so much of the Sergeant’s boot or the lash that waited for cowards as he was of letting down his comrades, of the shame he would feel if he ran off now in plain sight of them before things had even started. Every man around him felt the same way. He had seen forces of hardened veterans flee once the first man turned tail and ran, but no one wanted to be that first man.

He scuttled up the last ridge, threw himself flat on his belly and looked down on the enemy. Most of them stood around a large tree in a clearing by a slow-flowing river. They were not well organised, more like bandits than soldiers. There were few sentries. A bloody figure was tied to the bole of the oak, head slumped to one side, shirt torn from chest. It howled. There was another figure nearby who had stopped moving altogether.

The men below laughed too loudly and shouted too enthusiastically. There were several broached barrels of blood-red liquid sitting in the middle of the clearing. Some of the enemy soldiers ladled the wine into wooden goblets and swilled it down.

“The bastards are drunk,” the Barbarian muttered. “I am not going to stand by and watch enemies of the Queen be drunk when I am not.”

Rik cast his eye down to the ford. The Mor was wide here and its bed was paved with stones. Beyond was a large walled building on a slight rise. It dominated the whole area. From its walls, a small group of men could stand off an army while supplies held out.

Rik glanced in the direction of the Lieutenant and could see that he was not the only one who had noticed this. Already Sardec was giving orders to Sergeant Hef and Corporal Toby. A moment later the big, blonde, ruddy-faced Corporal slid into the position where Rik, Weasel and the Barbarian lay.

“Once the shooting starts we’re going to cross the ford and attack the manor house,” Toby said. “Over there — the overhanging trees will give us some shadow and some cover. The bastards have left the gate open so we’re going to grab it if we can.”

Rik measured the distance. It seemed like madness to try and sweep by a large group of armed men and take the building, particularly when there were sentries on the wall. Sardec had thought of this too.

“Weasel, reckon you can pick off those sentries?” Weasel sucked his teeth as he considered.

“Yup. If the Barbarian and Halfbreed leave me their muskets I reckon I can get them one after the other, before the wankers know what’s going on. If one of this pair will reload for me I can pick off anybody else that sticks their head above the battlement.”

“I don’t want to be your bloody loader,” said the Barbarian. “I want to fight.”

“Give it a couple of minutes and there will be enough fighting to go round,” said Weasel. The Barbarian shook his head and laid a massive hand on the hilt of his hill-man fighting knife. “There’s killing to be done and I want to do it.”

Corporal Toby looked at the pair of them. His blue eyes were cold. He did not have time for arguments. “You’ll get to use your shortsword, northman. Leave your musket here and join the assault party. Rik will do all the reloading. You don’t have any objections do you, Halfbreed?”

His tone told Rik that he’d better not have. Rik nodded. It was a job that needed to be done and Weasel was the man to do it. He had been the runner up in the regimental shooting championship, and would have won it if he had not placed a bunch of secret bets on himself to lose.

“Good,” Toby scuttled off along the ridgeline to gather the assault group. The Barbarian went with him, long- knife bare in his fist. Rik took out his cartridges, unclipped the ramrod from beneath the barrel of his musket and made ready.

Weasel gave him a wink. “Spearing carp in a barrel,” he said. He raised his long gun to his shoulder and waited.

A moment later, with a rumble like summer thunder, the Foragers opened fire. The densely packed band of men round the torture tree shrieked as musket balls ripped through them. Some fell, some turned, some threw themselves flat and were trampled. Drunk and surprised they had absolutely no idea what was going on. A very few, with some remaining presence of mind, reached for their muskets. The others milled and bleated like sheep in the pen of an abattoir.

There was a loud bang and a puff of smoke from nearby. The sulphurous smell of powder smoke assaulted Rik’s nostrils. A man on the battlements fell. He handed his own loaded musket to Weasel, and held the Barbarian’s ready. There was another bang, and another man fell. He passed the third musket to Weasel and began to reload the first. There was another bang and the last sentry on the battlements fell.

While this was going on, Corporal Toby and his assault group stormed round the enemy flank and headed for the river. The Foragers in the wood kept up a steady stream of fire. One man in the centre of the swirl of bodies began to bellow orders, and get the troops into some semblance of order. Weasel took the musket from Rik’s hands, twisted and fired. The would-be leader dropped.

For the men under attack it was the last straw. Some dived for the undergrowth, some fled towards the river, some stuck their hands in the air and howled about surrender. The relentless barrage of fire from the woods continued, unabated, swift and professional. The Foragers were good shots and the enemy had no idea how many men attacked them. Right now, it would not have mattered. The enemy were in a panic, and had lost all discipline. Under the circumstances if they had outnumbered the Foragers ten to one they would not have stood their ground.

Looking back at the building, Rik could see Corporal Toby and his men disappear through its gates. From inside came the sound of firing and the howls of the Barbarian’s battle cry. Weasel had transferred his gaze back to the structure’s walls.

“Those men were idiots, Halfbreed,” he said. “They could have interrogated Kalmek in the building, and had walls around them. Instead they made a barbecue out of it. If the rest of the Kharadreans are like this, just the company of us could take this whole bloody country.”

“I doubt the rest of the country will be,” said Rik.

“I can dream, can’t I?”

“I’d much rather know what’s going on here. This province was supposed to be friendly. Now we find it up in arms against us, even if it is in the most half-assed way possible.”

“There was nothing half-assed about the ambushes we’ve waded through…” The rest of Weasel’s sentence was drowned out by the rolling thunder of musketry and the screams of the dying. A moment later the Barbarian appeared on the battlements and waved. Weasel flinched.

“Almost blew the big, stupid bastard's brains out.”

“They’re so small I'd be surprised you could hit them.”

“I can shoot the bollocks off a blue-arsed fly, Halfbreed, so I just might be able to hit them. Might.”

Other Foragers appeared on the battlements. They levelled their rifles at the mass of men in the water and opened fire. Weasel accepted another rifle from Rik and joined in. Soon it was all over. Corpses sprawled flat out on the grass. The river was dyed red with blood. Sergeant Hef emerged from the woods and cut down Kalmek. Rik watched as the Foragers checked the survivors, bayoneting any who were too wounded to walk.

After watching a comrade being tortured, they were in no mood to be merciful.

Rik stood on the battlements on the far side of the captured manor house, looking down on the lands beyond. A short distance north the forest opened out onto rolling hillocks, small copses and open fields. Some of the hills were covered in long furrowed strips. They had a neglected overgrown look that told him war had once again overtaken agriculture in this part of the world. In the distance, if he strained, he thought he could make out the very tip of the Tower of Serpents, although he told himself that might just have been his imagination.

Behind and beneath him he could hear the sound of drunken revelry. It was obvious now why they had beaten their enemies so easily. The men had found a secret store of wine bricked up in the cellar. There was still plenty of it to go around. Despite the efforts of Sardec, and the Sergeant and Corporal, many of the Foragers were getting just as drunk as the men they had beaten, taking secret swigs when there was no one around to watch them. Rik had taken sentry duty up on the wall because he knew somebody had to, if they were not going to be taken in the same way as their late foes.

He heard footsteps on the stairs and turned to see Sergeant Hef’s head rise into view. The little monkey faced man grinned at him. “Nice to see someone has kept their head,” he said.

“I’m not in the mood,” Rik said.

“You’ve not been on the tear since the mountain,” said the Sergeant. He had the wary tone in his voice that all of them got when they discussed Achenar. None of them would ever forget the horrors they had faced there.

“Saving my pennies,” Rik said. He thought he saw movement on the nearest ridge. He pointed it out to the Sergeant. Hef raised a spyglass to his eyes.

“By the Light,” he said, passing the glass to Rik. Rik looked through the eyepiece and made a few adjustments and saw what had upset the Sergeant. There were men there, a lot of them. Moments later he heard the beat of a distant drum and an enemy force came into view. There were hundreds of them, cavalry and infantrymen. Forget hundreds, he thought, there were maybe thousands of them. It was a whole army, complete with blue-coated Terrarch officers. Banners fluttered in the breeze.

“Shit,” said Rik. “Better tell the lads to leg it.”

The army was heading this way. He wondered if they would make it before the outriders reached them.

From the speed at which the cavalry were moving, he guessed the answer was no.

Down in the courtyard the Foragers swiftly took up their weapons and headed to the walls. Sardec joined them, shouting instructions to close the gates and block them with anything that could be found. Toadface and the Barbarian rolled an old cart into place. It was obvious that they could not escape. Destrier-mounted dragoons were already within striking distance. Packs of scaly, razor-toothed ripjack wyrms fanned out ahead of them. Anyone who tried to break for the wood would be ridden down or torn to pieces by the ripjacks. The bi-pedal wyrm's massive jaws would strip a man’s flesh to the bone in seconds.

“What now, sir?” Sergeant Hef asked the Lieutenant.

Sardec considered for a moment. Rik knew that every man in the unit was listening closely and would take his cue from the Terrarch. If Sardec panicked, they all would. If Sardec stood firm so would they, even though it looked like a Blue army was out there. At least a thousand men lined the ridge-tops. Rik gave thanks for small mercies. At least there were no bridgebacks. Those huge wyrms could have smashed through the gate easily. And as far as he could see there were no cannons. The only question was whether there was a mage present. If there was, things would go very badly for the Foragers.

“We can hold out here for as long as we have powder,” said Sardec. “They don’t have artillery and they don’t have any great wyrms. If they had dragons, we would know all about it by now.”

Corporal Toby and Sergeant Hef nodded encouragingly but Rik could tell what they were thinking. Under normal circumstances, a force as outnumbered as theirs would surrender. Having seen what had happened to Kalmek and his companions none of them really trusted the parole of the enemy. At least for now, they would try to stand and fight.

“This evening we can try and slip away once it’s dark. Tonight will be cloudy.”

“Begging your pardon, sir,” said Sergeant Hef, “but those ripjacks will catch our scent if we try to slip out. And sentries might spot us. If we’re caught on the open ground or in the ford we will be torn to bits.”

The old Sardec would have lashed out at Hef for contradicting him. Now he merely nodded and said; “Of course, you are right, Sergeant. However, Lord Azaar must be informed of this threat to his flank. Perhaps a few picked men can be slipped over the wall and through the enemy lines. They can reach our army. Once word is brought to them, a relief force can easily be organised. It’s only a couple of leagues. They can be here by morning if we can hold out.”

And he managed to put that together all by himself, thought Rik sourly. Hef nodded.

“Pick as many men as you think necessary, Sergeant,” said Sardec. “The best men for the job.”

Rik was not surprised when Hef picked Weasel and the Barbarian. He was when the Sergeant chose him. Hef obviously noticed his startled look.

“You have got the nightsight and you’ve got a brain, Halfbreed,” he said. “And you have nerve. We saw that in those hell mines. Keep those two out of trouble. Get them to the camp. We’re all counting on you. Go and get some rest now. You’ll need your wits about you tonight.”

In the distance Rik could hear the shouts and laughter of the enemy. How was he ever going to get some sleep with that racket reminding him of what was outside the walls?

An earthquake rocked Rik. His eyes felt gummy. When he forced them open he saw it was only the Barbarian shaking him awake. “Rise and shine,” he said. “It’s time to show those Bluecoat bastards what stealth is.”

“If that’s your intention you should keep your voice down to below a bellow,” said Weasel.

“What’s new?” Rik asked, just to steady his nerves. His tongue felt thick, his limbs weak. He had used to feel this way back before a big burglary during the old days in Sorrow.

“Not so good,” said Weasel. “They’ve surrounded us. Moved some troops down by the ford. Got ripjacks there as well.”

“Any more good news?”

“Well, the Lieutenant has talked to some of the prisoners. Says they are turncoats. They used to be part of Princess — ahem — Queen Kathea’s army, now they’ve turned blue.”

“Any idea why?”

“You’ll love this, and so will Lord Azaar,” said Weasel. “They say Ilmarec has changed sides. He’s holding the Princess — I mean Queen — in the Tower of Serpents. These men say if their liege lord has sided with the Blues so will they.”

“Great. Nothing so touching as loyalty is there.”

“It gets better. The Legion of Exiles is in Morven.”

“Khaldarus’s pet killers?” Rik shivered. The Legion had the worst of reputations. Their leaders were Terrarchs so depraved they had been banished by the Dark Empire and now fought as mercenaries for Prince Khaldarus. They used the darkest of magic too.

“None other. We’re to report all this to the General in person. We’re also to fill him in on the situation. I’m telling you this now in case we get separated. When we see Sardec in a few minutes he’ll doubtless tell you the same, but he’ll be more long winded about it. You know how Terrarchs are.”

“Got any plans for getting us out of here.”

“I thought we might try and drop into the river below the ford, let the current carry us downstream a bit and then double back to pick up the path to camp.”

Rik nodded. It made sense. Using the stream would keep the ripjacks from picking up their scent.

“It will be bloody cold,” he said. “The water I mean.”

“We’re not going for a picnic, Halfbreed. There’s men out there will kill us if they catch us.”

“Hot knives up your bunghole will soon warm you up if you are too cold,” said the Barbarian. He was nervous, his truculent manner always increased in direct proportion to his nerves.

Weasel just grinned like a dog whose belly was being scratched. Rik thought then, and not for the first time, that the former poacher was mad. It was not right for any man to be so fearless. Still, if he was going to risk his life, he was glad he was doing it in their company. He had never known anybody better suited for this kind of work.

“Let’s get on with it,” he said. “Soonest done, soonest home.”


Chapter Three

<p>Chapter Three</p>

Rik shivered as he dragged himself from the river. So far, so good, he thought, lying on the bank and gasping. The chill seeped into him from his dripping wet clothes. He prayed to the Light that he would not get the flux after tonight’s exertions. He had seen it happen to others. Too late to worry about that now, he told himself.

A shadowy figure emerged from the water nearby. From its size he guessed it was the Barbarian. “Where’s Weasel?” he asked in a low voice. He did not whisper. Whispers carried further in the dark than speaking in a normal tone.

“Here!” came the response. “Just taking a rest after our midnight swim.” From downriver came the shouts of men, the roars of ripjacks, the neighing of horses: all the sounds of the enemy camp. The glow of their fires was dimly visible through the woods.

“We made it,” The Barbarian said.

“So far,” said Weasel. “Best be heading on, if we want to get round that camp.”

They squelched away from the stream. Rik held his bayonet in his hand. It was the only weapon he had, and it would not give him much chance against anyone armed with a firearm but he found it reassuring nonetheless. They had not brought their muskets or their pistols. They would not have worked after the soaking the three of them had just received.

Ahead of him, he could hear brush breaking as well as the soggy sound of feet in wet boots. This was a farce. They were moving without any stealth at all. The clouds that had proved so helpful in obscuring them from sight when they slipped over the wall were a hindrance now. It was dark enough to baffle even his normally excellent night sight. He could not see his hand in the pitch-blackness. Roots reached out to trip him. Trees jumped in front of him. Branches clawed his face.

“Stopping making so much bloody noise, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian.

“You sound like a bull wyrm in a thicket yourself,” Rik replied.

“A very wet bull wyrm,” said Weasel.

“Why did we volunteer for this?” Rik asked.

“I don’t recall any volunteering. I was picked,” said the Barbarian. “On account of my courage, good looks and intelligence, no doubt.”

“No doubt,” said Rik.

“At least we have a chance to get out of that death trap alive,” said Weasel.

“The lads will make it,” said the Barbarian.

“Let’s hope so,” said Rik. His eyes were starting to adjust to the deeper gloom. At least he hoped they were, and that those deeper shadows were trees. He felt an odd fear growing in him, of being surprised by some hidden terror in the darkness. He noticed that the woods were full of small scuttling noises, and that things moved above them in the branches.

“If we head this way we should cut to the path,” Weasel said.

“You sure?” Rik asked.

“Of course I’m not bloody sure,” said Weasel. “But I’m giving it my best guess.”

“Let’s hope that is good enough.”

“Wait a second. What was that?” the Barbarian asked. They had all heard it. It sounded like something big was moving through the undergrowth in the distance.

“Most likely a wild pig,” said Weasel.

“Didn’t know they came out at night,” said the Barbarian.

An odd hissing roar filled the night. Men’s shouts responded to it.

“Fuck,” said the Barbarian. “A ripjack.”

“More than one,” said Weasel as an answering roar echoed through the woods. “And it’s caught our scent by the sound of it.”

All three of them bolted headlong through the woods. Behind them came the sound of men and wyrms in pursuit.

“You think they’ve got through, Sergeant?” Sardec asked. He looked down from the manor house’s wall, contemplating the fires that filled the night around them. There were a lot of them. He took another sip from the goblet of wine. It was bitter from the drugs the alchemists had given him to kill the pain of his stump. That still hurt even after all these weeks and all the spells of the Masters.

“I think so, sir. There’s no better man than Weasel in a wood. I reckon they are through.”

“Let’s hope so, Sergeant. There’s an army down there.”

“A small army, sir,” said Sergeant Hef.

“You’re right, Sergeant. What I can’t understand is why they haven’t attacked yet. It makes more sense to storm the place now. In the morning we’ll have a clear shot at them.”

“Maybe they want clear shots at us, sir. Maybe they have marched a long way and want rest. Maybe they are waiting for their cannon to come up.”

Sardec smiled at the small monkey faced man beside him. It had slowly been creeping up on him that he actually rather liked the Sergeant, in the same way he liked his hunting wyrms, of course. “If that was meant to reassure me, Sergeant, it did not do a very good job.”

“Just pointing out the options, sir. That’s my job.”

“You do it very well.”

“Thank you, sir.” Sardec noticed the Sergeant’s eyes flickering to the wine cup. He was wondering whether this sudden surge of affability in an officer was on account of the wine. Sardec wondered that too, but he already knew the answer.

“They don’t seem terribly well organised, do they Sergeant?” The enemy had made no attempt to fortify their position. They seemed to have posted very few pickets. The men had made camp wherever they felt like it as long as it was just out of musket shot. If he’d had a few more men, Sardec would have contemplated a night raid. A few grenades among those tightly packed fires and…

“They’re probably just local militia, sir, or farmboys fresh from some noble's estate. Some local lord raised a regiment and fancies himself a General. That’s always been the way of it in Kharadrea.”

“It wasn’t when Koth ran things,” said Sardec.

“No, sir, you’re right, but from what I’ve heard the Royal Army never was more than a small fraction of the troops in Kharadrea. The rest were levies.”

“Koth was from near these parts, Sergeant. Did you know that?” Sardec wondered whose banner fluttered over that central cluster of tents. He was sure he had seen the tall figures of Terrarchs mixing with the men.

“Started as a bandit in these very woods, if I recall correctly, worked his way up to chief warlord for King Orodruine.” Of course, the Sergeant knew about Koth. Every human soldier did. He was their idol. Sardec considered Koth’s career. The man had been born in a woodsman’s hut and had ended up humbling the best Generals of two kingdoms, Terrarch Generals with centuries of experience of war. How was that possible?

“Some men have a talent for war, sir,” said Sergeant Hef. Sardec was a little shocked. The drugs or the wine were more potent than he had thought. He had not realised he had been talking out loud.

“Well, hopefully, whoever is out there is not one of them,” he said.

“Hopefully, sir,” said Hef. He tried to sound enthusiastic but Sardec knew they were both thinking the same thing. It did not matter how incompetent the enemy commander down there was, or how unprofessional his troops. Sheer weight of numbers would overwhelm the Foragers when they attacked tomorrow. Sardec prayed to the Light that the three men the Sergeant had picked had managed to find their way through the enemy lines.

This old manor was strong; a fortified farmhouse with thick walls around it, designed to resist bandit attacks from the forest and the raiding soldiers of neighbouring lords. It was a product of the constant internecine warfare that had long plagued Kharadrea. Yes, it was a strong building.

Sardec just hoped the building was strong enough.

After what seemed like an eternity, the moon emerged from the clouds and shafts of light struck the earth through the foliage. By this time, Rik’s eyes were used to the gloom. The blindness was over. He could see. The woods shimmered in the moonglow. Large mushrooms thrust up through the mulch of leaves. The Barbarian and Weasel were goblin figures ahead of him.

The sound of pursuit came from behind them. Rik felt as if his chest was on fire. The wet clothes chafed his skin. He itched from mosquito bites. A new tone had entered the voices of wyrms. If Rik had not known better he would have said it was fear. He could hear men, trying to lash them on, but for some reason the ripjacks simply would not advance.

“What’s going on?” Rik asked.

“Don’t know,” said the Barbarian.

“There’s something strange about this place,” said Weasel. They stood in a large clearing beside a large almost perfectly circular lake. It was so mathematically symmetrical that Rik suspected it was artificial. Weasel pointed to a path winding its way through the trees.

It was unnaturally quiet here, and the trees had a queer warped twisted look. Mould clung to some of their branches. Old tales of the horrors to be met in woods after midnight leapt into his mind. It seemed they had been driven far from the path they wanted to take and into some place utterly different.

At that moment, the wind shifted and Rik caught the smell.

“What’s that stink?” he asked.

“Smells rotten,” said the Barbarian. Instinctively they moved closer together, forming up in a triangle so they could cover all the lines of approach.

At that moment, a faint glow started about twenty paces away. There was a greenish tinge to it. Rik felt a pricking on his skin.

A large creature stood in the centre of the glow. Rik felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. The thing was as bulky as the Barbarian but not as tall. It was longer and lower to the ground. It resembled nothing so much as a ripjack, but a ripjack with the proportions of a man. Its head was serpent-like. A massive tail rose behind it. Its skin was scaly. Its eyes bulged and were larger by far than a man’s. A long tongue whipped from its mouth and tasted the air. In its hands it held a serrated edged sword as long as a rifle, and vicious looking as hell. Tales of the ghosts of Serpent Men sprang to Rik’s mind.

“What the hell is that?” said the Barbarian. The thing stared at them across the clearing. Rik tensed expecting an attack. He glanced left and right wondering if this was a distraction meant to hold their attention while something else snuck up on them. He saw nothing, and heard nothing save the small night sounds of the forest.

“Who are you?” Rik asked.

“What are you?” The Barbarian sounded as if he were on the edge of berserk fury now. He had all the Northman’s primitive superstitions about the demons of the Elder World. Looking at this thing, Rik did not blame him.

“Serpent Man,” said Weasel. “Must be. Its people once lived in these parts.”

“They died out ages ago,” said Rik.

“Tell that to scaly over there. He’s the one you need to convince.”

“You think it’s a ghost then, Halfbreed?” said the Barbarian. The fear in his voice was even more evident. He sounded like he could not decide whether to charge at the thing or run screaming into the night. He was simply saying what they were all thinking.

“How would I know? It looks real enough.”

“Think my sword would cut it?” The Barbarian asked.

“Want to go over and find out?”

“You think I am scared?”

“I sure as hell am,” Rik replied.

“It’s not moving,” said Weasel. As ever he had managed to keep his wits about him. Now that Rik looked closely he could see the poacher was right. The faint glow surrounding it rippled and gave the impression of movement, but so far the creature had done nothing since it became visible.

“Maybe it’s waiting. Snakes can wait forever without moving,” said the Barbarian.

Now that the immediate rush of fear had passed, Rik was more curious than afraid. He edged slowly closer to the Serpent Man. It appeared to be standing on top of something, a massive block of stone, partially buried in the earth. As Rik approached runes lit up and crawled along its side. He froze immediately but nothing happened.

“Come back, Halfbreed,” the Barbarian called. “Remember what happened in the mines.”

Curiosity and something else niggled at Rik. There was something wrong here. A mystery he was determined to penetrate. Curiosity had always been a fatal weakness of his. He halted almost within touching distance of the Serpent Man.

This close Rik could not help but notice that two long fangs curved down from the corners of its mouth. He wondered if they were poisonous in life. He was close enough now to see that this thing was a statue, standing on top of some sort of plinth. He admired the detail of the workmanship. It was incredibly life like. Looking around, he could see the ground here was irregular. An open area of paved stone lay just beyond the statue. Strange glowing runes crawled over its surface as well.

What was going on here, he wondered? Had their presence triggered something? Was this some sort of sorcerous trap? Or had this nothing to do with them.

“I think this place is haunted, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. “Come away.”

“It’s only a statue,” Rik replied. “It’s not a ghost.”

“What about these bloody lights then?”

“Magic of some sort,” said Rik.

There was no denying the sorcery involved in them, but so far it had not seemed to do anything to them. Perhaps this was a place best left alone. His nerves were taut. His senses screamed at him to go. He felt as if at any minute something dreadful might appear.

“I think now we should leave this place,” said Weasel.

Rik nodded. They turned to follow the path once more, and progressed through the night with many an uneasy glance over their shoulders. They could still hear the sounds of their pursuers behind them. Rik understood now why the wyrms would not approach this place.

They were more sensible than men.

Sardec stood on a cold peak looking down on the long road that vanished into darkness. Dozens of figures walked it. They were tall and shrouded in funeral grey. He stroked his chin with the fleshy fingers of his right hand. Surprise shook him. He thought he had lost those fingers. He thought they had been burned away. He could still feel the terrible heat in them. He reached down and found his father’s blade, Moonshade, hanging at his side. That too was funny. He had thought the blade destroyed, lost in the mines beneath Achenar, when he and his soldiers had fought the demon god Uran Ultar.

He remembered what the road was now. He had been here before. It was the road of the dead, which the souls of Terrarchs walked en route to the Place of Judgement. So I’m dead then, he thought. Did the Kharadreans attack in the night? Or had he never walked away from the lair of the Spider God? Had that been some sort of dream? No, he thought, that was wrong. This was the dream.

Even as he thought that, he felt the things scuttling over him. They were small creatures, a cross between a spider and a centipede whose long tails arched scorpion-like over their bodies. They began to clamber over him, stinging him. Where the tails entered, flesh swelled into huge bumps from which more and more of the creatures hatched. Behind him, he heard something big scuttling closer and closer. He writhed in agony, rolling and trying to crush the things, as they swarmed into his clothes, into his mouth, as their stings penetrated his eyes…

Covered in cold sweat, he sat up. The room was empty. The fire was out. He had endured the dream once more. He wondered if it had any mystical significance or whether it was just a nightmare.

“Ah, the sweet smell of home,” said the Barbarian, taking a lungful of the foul air into his nostrils. He had become more cheerful with every step that put the haunted glade and its strange statue behind them.

They had smelled the camp long before they saw it. The odour of cooking and latrines and wyrms and thousands of unwashed bodies packed close together in damp tents was unmistakable. Now the camp was visible below them, a dark mass of tents and lanterns laid out in regular rows, large fires built far enough from the tents to prevent a blaze, sentries with lanterns moving to and fro through the mobile city. Rik could see the inverted v of the human tents and the vast pavilions of the Terrarch nobles, with tents of all sizes in between. On the far side of the camp from the horses, corralled wyrms bellowed and grunted in their sleep.

They trudged downhill until a sentry challenged them, and they gave their names and their regiments. “Password,” went the sentry.

“We don’t know the bloody password,” said the Barbarian. “We’ve just come back from a battle and we’ve news for the General.”

“If you don’t know the password I have to lock you up. Orders are orders.”

“Is that Corporal Menzel?” Weasel asked.

“Aye, Weasel, is that you?”

“You know it is, and I have the Barbarian and Halfbreed with me.”

“So you do.”

“Let us pass. This is important. The rest of the lads are trapped back there and we need to get a relief column organised.”

“I don’t know anything about. I have my orders and orders is orders.”

The Barbarian sputtered with rage. “If you don’t let us pass I’m going to take this knife and stick it up…”

“What’s going on here?” said another voice. It belonged to a Terrarch. Lieutenant Jazeray emerged from the gloom and began surveying the scene down his long nose.

“We’ve come from Lieutenant Sardec, sir,” said Rik. “He encountered the enemy today, took a stronghold from them but was cut off by enemy reinforcements. He sent us to get help. I appreciate Corporal Menzel here being zealous in his duties but we were instructed to take the word to General Azaar himself.”

“Were you now?” Jazeray asked. “Sardec surrounded you say? How many enemy?”

“Maybe a thousand Blues.”

“I doubt there are that many Blues in a hundred miles.”

“With all respect, sir, perhaps the General should be the one to make that decision. Our lads could be dying back there and…”

Jazeray came to a decision. He nodded. “Of course. But I warn you if this is some sort of hoax…”

“It’s no hoax, sir.”

“Come then, let us go and disturb the General and his half-sister.”

Rik started. As far as he knew Lord Azaar only had one half-sister, the Lady Asea. Once she had promised to teach him sorcery, but she seemed to have forgotten him for the past few months. He wondered why she was back in camp at this time and what tidings she had brought. He wondered if she even remembered who he was.

He shrugged. He would know the answers soon enough.


Chapter Four

<p>Chapter Four</p>

Ahead of them a huge pavilion loomed. Glowstones set on staves lit the entrance. More of the magical gems dangled from chandeliers hung from the roof-pole of the interior. Despite the hour, people filled the tent. The smell of incense drifted through the air and a small chamber orchestra played soothing music.

At the central table sat the army’s Terrarch officers. Gold braid garlanded their scarlet coats. Regimental badges pinned to many breasts revealed the ranks of Colonels and Captains. Rik found his gaze drawn magnetically to the table. At one end sat a tall Terrarch, his face obscured by a silver mask of startling beauty. His scarlet coat was severely cut and carried no markings of rank. Leather gauntlets obscured his hands. Despite the heat a red scarf covered his neck. It seemed that General Azaar was determined not to show the slightest trace of flesh to the world. There were terrible rumours concerning why.

At the other end of the table sat a Terrarch woman of startling beauty, tall as a tall man, slender as a willow wand. Her hair was piled high on her head to reveal her sharply pointed ears. Her huge liquid eyes caught the light and reflected it. Rik was stunned. The last time he had seen Lady Asea she had been garbed for war in the magical armour of the First. Now she looked every inch the Lady of court. There was no trace of the martial sorceress who had offered to apprentice him. She gave not the slightest sign of knowing who Rik was. For the sake of his own safety, he decided that he had better take his cue from her.

Lieutenant Jazeray strode forward and whispered something in Colonel Xeno’s ear. That cold-faced officer leaned forward and said something to General Azaar. The General gestured for the three Foragers to come forward. The slow grace of his movement, and the leather covering his hand gave it a sinister quality. Rik did his best not to quail under the General’s bright, mad gaze. He had once seen a hawk with eyes like Azaar's. There was something predatory and fierce and not quite sane about them.

“Speak,” said the General. His voice was low but it carried through the hubbub of the room. Despite all the people present, he felt the General’s attention was focused totally on him. He had to fight to stop himself babbling as he told his tale. Azaar heard him out without interrupting and then asked a few questions about the nature of the enemy troops and their disposition, before raising his hand.

“My Lords,” he said. “Business calls. It seems we have encountered the enemy sooner than we expected. I regret we must turn our attention from this fine food to matters more martial. If the Colonels will join me in my tent, I would be grateful. I suggest that the rest of you get some sleep. There will be battle on the morrow. My sister, I regret we must interrupt this feast of welcome.”

Asea nodded graciously. "Duty must come first."

One by one the Terrarchs rose, bowed to Azaar and Asea and to each other then withdrew.

Azaar looked at the three Foragers. “Hold yourself in readiness here in case I need to question you again. My servants have gone to find you dry clothing. Help yourself to any food you want on the table. Leave the wine alone for now. I want you clear-headed.”

Rik was surprised. Azaar’s speech did not have any of the patronising quality he had come to expect from the Terrarchs. It was not friendly, but it was not contemptuous either, and his manner said that he really did appreciate the dangers they had run to bring him this news and would reward them in time.

A moment later, Azaar swept out of the tent followed by the regimental commanders and their adjutants. The three men found themselves alone with the servants and the Lady Asea. She fanned herself and studied them from the corner of her eye, without seeming to.

The Barbarian eyed her with a frank appreciation that Rik expected to get him hauled off and whipped. Weasel was already at the table, selecting dainties and sticking them in his pockets for later. The mark of an old soldier, Rik thought, was that he never let an opportunity for such plunder pass.

Asea gestured at Rik. At first he was not sure she meant him, but she repeated it and he walked over.

“You look a little bedraggled, soldier,” she said.

“We swam a river tonight, milady” he said.

“And encountered a relic of the Serpent Men,” she said. “That’s a strange omen.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Perhaps you will soon.”

She smiled at him and the smile was ravishing, though there was a coldness to it that put him on his guard. “I have not forgotten what we talked of in the mines beneath Achenar. We will talk again when the time is right.” She gestured with her fan to the two soldiers and the servants who had already set to clearing the table. “This is not the time or the place.”

“I appreciate that, milady,” Rik said. His heart raced. It seemed that she really had not forgotten about him, and he had not lost his chance to learn sorcery and to rise in the world. Suddenly his old suppressed ambitions returned.

She nodded pleasantly to him, rose and then left the tent. Two maids followed her, and Rik caught sight of one of her dark clad bodyguards moving to join her, silent as a shadow and dangerous as a tiger.

The Barbarian strode over. The nudge of his elbow almost knocked Rik from his feet. “What were you talking about with Her Loveliness?”

Rik gave the big man a sharp look. Was he really smitten with Asea or was this just some sort of crude joke?

“We were talking about the Serpent Man.”

“What did she say?” asked Weasel, around a mouthful of pastry.

“She said it was a strange omen.”

“She would know about such things. Magic is her business.” Weasel looked thoughtful. “They say she spent a lot of time on the southern continent, Xulander, that’s where the last Serpent Men dwell. The Quartermaster claims that she picked up those strange-eyed bodyguards of hers there.”

The Quartermaster was very well informed about all manner of strange things. Rik did not doubt that he would be very well informed about the substance of this conversation after Weasel had a word with him. He resolved to keep his mouth shut about the apprenticeship business. That was not something he wanted babbled around the camp. Nor did Asea, it seemed.

He helped himself to some bread and some preserve. It was very fine, but he did not recognise the taste at all. He asked one of the servants, who looked at him as if he had just crawled out of a sewer. “It is bloodberry jelly preserved in dreamspider venom, sir,” said the man. “It causes elation in humans.” He spoke the words as if humans were a different species from himself.

More servants arrived. They were carrying new uniforms, and greatcoats. They were dark and bore the house mark of Lady Asea.

“The Lady has asked Lord Azaar to be allowed to have the heroes of Achenar be her bodyguards on the morrow. His Lordship had kindly granted permission,” said the chief servant who had brought the clothes.

Rik changed right there and then, grateful for the moment to be dry and well-fed. As he rested he heard couriers being dispatched with messages. It looked like Lord Azaar had some plans for the morrow.

Rik woke early the next day. His head lay on a rolled up cloak. Someone had covered him in a greatcoat. The Barbarian lay nearby. Weasel lay on one elbow, smoking a pipe. He winked when he saw Rik was awake. They were still in the great pavilion. No one had come to ask them any more questions in the night. They seemed to have been forgotten. Rik remembered sleeping uneasily, constantly awakening to the shouts of men, the clatter of carts, the passing of horses and wyrms. He sniffed. The air smelled of sour wine and stale incense.

“Morning, Halfbreed,” said Weasel. “Breakfast?”

He offered a crumbled pastry from the pocket of his greatcoat. Rik shook his head and rose. The table had been cleared during the night, but someone had thought to leave some cold meat and some half-stale bread. Rik was surprised to find the servants so thoughtful. Perhaps they had been given orders.

“What’s it like outside?” he asked.

“Stick your head out the door and take a look. I’ve not been out myself.”

The sun was bright. The pavilion sat on a rise. The standards of the army flapped in a light breeze nearby. He looked down on a camp buzzing with activity, an anthill poked with a stick. Units of men moved in controlled chaos. Massive, long-necked bridgebacks, big as houses, headed off towards the east. Units of cavalry followed them. Scarlet-coated Terrarch officers bustled over the hill, coming and going, doubtless getting final instructions.

Asea’s black clad bodyguard approached. The cowl of his tunic covered his hair; a scarf was wrapped around the lower part of his face. Only his eerie animal-like eyes and the swarthy skin of his forehead was visible.

“Good,” he said, his accent foreign. “You are up. The mistress commands you to her presence. In the absence of my brothers, she requires bodyguards and she seems to think you three are worthy.”

The rest of Asea’s black-clad protectors had died in the hellhole beneath Achenar. Rik wondered how this man felt about that. Had the men been his kin or part of his religion or was there some other reason for his calling the dead men brothers.

“I am sorry for your loss,” he said, hoping to draw the man out.

“Do not be. They died performing their duty. It is what they wished. There is no greater honour.” Rik could think of a few but now did not seem to be the time to point this out.

“I am Rik.”

“Karim is my name.”

He glanced inside to see that Weasel had already woken the Barbarian. They were eating away merrily.

“Time to go,” he said. “The Lady Asea commands our presence.”

Sardec rose. He was tired but he could not sleep and he wanted to check the sentries. He found most of the men already awake, readying their weapons, preparing to fight. He strode up onto the wall and saw that mist covered the land below them. It was quite common at this time of year in these woods, but it would not help their cause any. The enemy could get almost to the walls without being shot at. He wondered why they had not tried that already. It was what he would have done. He prayed to the Light for the sun to rise and blow the stuff away. They had little enough chance in this fight already. The mist would only work to their enemy’s advantage.

He wondered once more whether the messengers had made it through. It was all too easy to imagine the things that could have gone wrong. The men could have been captured or got lost. The high command might not believe them. Sardec shook his head and tried to ignore the pain at the end of his stump. There was no sense about worrying about such things now. They were outside of his control. He would deal with the things that he had some sway over.

It looked like Sergeant Hef had already done a good job of preparing the men. Half of them were already on the walls, crouching down out of sight so that no random shot could get them. All of them had loaded weapons near at hand, and bayonets ready. They were going to be needed, Sardec guessed. Sergeant Hef saw his approach, rose and saluted.

“Good work, Sergeant,” Sardec said.

“I’ve got a few men in the old mansion house preparing a field surgery, sir. The rest of the lads are down below having breakfast. I thought it best to get them fed before the fight starts. Who knows when they’ll next have a chance? One thing gets me, sir.”

“Yes, Sergeant?”

“Why have they not attacked yet?”

“I don’t know, Sergeant but perhaps we’ll get a chance to ask them.” He pointed with his good hand. A group of Terrarchs emerged from the mist below. One of them held a stick with a bit of white cloth on it. It was obvious they wanted to parlay.

“Do you accept the flag?” shouted the leader. Sardec raised the spyglass to his eye, and fumbled with the hook to adjust it. He studied the speaker carefully. He was a tall Terrarch wearing a long blue frock coat and a half-face mask of archaic style. A waterfall of pure white hair descended from below a tricorne hat.

“Aye,” said Sardec. “To whom do I have the honour of speaking?”

“I am Esteril of House Morven. May I ask the favour of knowing your own name?”

“I am Sardec of House Harke.”

“A good name. I knew your father.”

“Then our acquaintance is doubly welcome. I will mention you to him when I next write home.”

“Do remind him of the day we routed the Lords of Valastne together.” Sardec remembered his father speaking of the day. He recalled also what he said of Lord Esteri a Terrarch of great courage and honour but unburdened by high intellect. If he was in charge down there, that would certainly explain the slackness.

“It will be my pleasure.”

“I regret to inform you that you are surrounded.”

“I had noticed this,” said Sardec.

“It would do me great honour if you would accept my protection.”

“That is as gentile a surrender request as I am ever likely to hear, but I regret I must decline it.”

“Surely you can see that you are greatly outnumbered.”

“I can, but I hold the superior position.”

Esteril laughed. “I like your spirit, lad, but you know that if I order the attack there can only be one outcome.” Sardec decided to play to the elder Terrarch’s sporting instincts.

“Surely you cannot expect me to leave my command without a shot being fired.” Again Esteril laughed. It was the sort of laugh that would not have been out of place around his father’s table after a hunt, the laugh of the sort of warrior to whom war was another form of sport, like hunting or shooting game.

“Nay, lad. I respect your gumption. Let us try your lads against mine, and see whose humans are better.”

“Very well, Lord Esteril. Let us have some sport.” Sardec turned to Sergeant Hef. “Be prepared to give milord’s men a warm welcome. I have a mind to hold our position for as long as there is a chance of Lord Azaar relieving us.”

“Very good, sir,” said Sergeant Hef. “After seeing what happened to Kalmek I doubt the lads are in any mood to down arms.”

Sardec could have told him that things would be different now with a Terrarch like Esteril in command. Such a one would no more torture men who had surrendered than he would mistreat a dog. At least Sardec hoped that was the way of it. In any case, he saw no need to share this information with the men. He wanted them to fight as hard as they could.

Briefly he felt a surge of guilt about condemning some of them to death. It occurred to him that he might be condemning himself to death as well. This was the sort of bloodsport in which accidents happened all too easily.

A line of soldiers emerged from the mist. “Give the bastards hell!” he shouted. Musket fire erupted all around him. He stood firm even as musket balls took chunks out of the palisade before him.

“This is the way to travel,” said the Barbarian. They sat at the back of the howdah of Asea’s bridgeback. The enormous quadrupedal wyrm strode through the forest, picking its way through the trees and over the rough ground with surprising delicacy. Asea sat at the front, just behind the mahout. She was garbed in the odd sorcerous armour she had worn beneath Achenar. It was made of leather strips that seemed to hug her figure without support and flowed sinuously with her slightest movement. A cowl of the same leather emerged from the shoulders to cover her head. A mask of living silver covered her face, turning her into a mysterious goddess.

Branches scratched along the awning that shaded the howdah. It looked like silk but it must be made of something tougher to resist the constant abuse.

The ground here was rough and unsteady. The earth had the contours of a scrap of parchment crumpled by an angry scribe. The mountains were close. At this early hour, mist still hung over the woods giving the morning a faint wet chill. Rik stifled a yawn. He realised that he had managed only a few hours sleep. Excitement warred with fatigue.

All around them soldiers moved through the woods. Most of the companies moved in column along the narrow path. Long lines of light infantry threaded their way through the trees on either side. Rik knew that there were more scouts up ahead and watching the rear behind. There were a number of great wyrms. On their backs sat high Terrarch officers, the greatest of whom was Azaar. Most of the army’s battle wyrms and artillery were not present though. They had headed east with the cavalry before first light. Clearly the General had a plan, but Rik was not entirely certain what it was. He guessed there were enough infantry present to match the enemy force he had seen last night, probably more.

He hoped they would be in time to relieve the Foragers


Chapter Five

<p>Chapter Five</p>

Sardec poured a splash of wine on his wound. It burned like hell. Holding one end of the bit of fabric in his teeth, he wrapped the rest of it around the holed area with his good hand, telling himself that it was one of those cuts that looked worse than they were.

Desperate men crouched behind the battlements, ramming powder and ball into muskets, making ready to fire. Sergeant Hef bellowed encouragement. A bold few stood and fired and were rewarded with screams from their foes as their musket balls ploughed into flesh.

Down below, the courtyard was full of bodies. The wounded lay in their blood-stained rags. A few of the older men hacked at wounds with saws and sealed stumps by searing them with flame. The screams echoed in Sardec’s head.

Why had he not surrendered?

The answer was simple, he reminded himself: because it would not do to have this enemy force fall on the unprotected flank of the Talorean Army. If that happened, that might prove to be the end of this campaign and a grievous blow to the whole war in the East.

It was odd how the fates of armies and nations, could sometimes balance on the courage of a few determined soldiers in a god-forsaken flyspeck like this. Or maybe that was simply his vanity. Maybe this was an essentially meaningless skirmish fought because of his foolishness and pride.

More screams sounded outside the walls. The stench of powder and voided bowels filled the air. Had war always been like this, even in the age of dragons and knights? Probably. The aura of chivalry and heroism that clung to the old tales was most likely a product of time and distance. It did not matter if you wore armour and carried a lance, or dressed in broadcloth and fired a musket, in the end, the truths of war would always be the same. Men died. Terrarchs died. The winners made policy. The losers nursed grudges.

A thump and a faint vibration of the wall against which he leaned told Sardec that the attackers were about to try swarming over again. The enemy had not wasted all of their time last night. They had found ladders somewhere. There were ropes too with their ends wrapped round heavy sticks. When thrown through the crenulations they could sometimes find purchase and anchor and provide another means of climbing. These walls were not castle high.

Sergeant Hef crawled over on hands and knees and handed Sardec a loaded pistol. He took it in his left hand, and cursed the fate that had left him a cripple and his father’s sword embedded and ruined in a mad wizard’s body. Once he would have faced the oncoming attackers with Moonshade in his hand, and killed them where they stood. He had been a formidable swordsman and the old magical blade had made him more formidable yet. Now all he had was this accursed hook.

No use crying over spilled wine, he told himself. He would have to make do with what he had. One of the enemy yowled coming up the ladder. Sardec rose. A man’s face stared up at him. He had just time to take in the horror in the man’s eyes then he put his pistol against his target’s forehead and pulled the trigger. The hammer flashed forward. Powder sparked, smoke belched, but nothing else happened.

It was a bloody misfire.

The man on the ladder looked demonic now, his face soot blackened, his teeth showing wild and white. He began to pull himself over the wall. Sardec felt a brief flicker of remorse, that he should do such a thing to one who had just survived certain death, then smashed the man across the face with the barrel of the pistol. Teeth flew out, blood splattered and the attacker fell backwards from the wall. A bullet whizzed past Sardec’s head but he remained upright just long enough to kick the ladder free of the wall and send it tumbling backwards towards the ground.

He squinted through the gloom and saw nothing but more men emerging from the smoke clouds, shrieking with fear and battle madness.

Sardec dropped back down behind the battlements and saw to his horror that a group of the enemy were clambering over the barricade at the manor’s gateway and pouring into the courtyard. Among them were a group of ripjack wyrms, more massive than men, with jaws that could tear off a soldier’s arm at a bite. The very sight of them caused fear among the Foragers. Sardec took the stairs three at a time as he bounded to meet them, praying that someone would follow him.

Where in hell was the relief column, he wondered?

The wyrm crossed the ridge. Rik could see the ford and the fortified mansion, wreathed with smoke and surrounded by men. Those he could see had Blue armbands. A Terrarch officer in a blue frock coat roared orders. Bugles sounded, drums banged loud as demons bashing down the walls of Bedlam. It was chaos.

“This is madness,” he heard Asea say. “What do those men think they are doing?”

Rik wondered if she was going to try any magic, but she sat still and silent. If she had anything like the wand she had used in battle with the hill tribes, she kept it out of sight. Rik saw the rest of the Talorean force top the ridge.

“I think they are attacking the manor, milady,” said Rik.

“They have left no sentries, no rear guard, nothing. Their commander should be shot for incompetence.”

“I will try and arrange it if the opportunity arises.” As soon as the words had left his lips, Rik regretted them. Jesting with a great Terrarch lady was not something humans were supposed to do. To his relief she saw that she was smiling. Even that, lovely as it was, made him deeply uneasy. It was as if she was smiling at some secret joke of her own, not the one he had made at all. Another realisation hit him. He did not like having so much of his hopes for the future pinned on one person. He did not like being bound to her. Part of him resented the loss of freedom deeply.

“It seems you have something of the assassin in your blood, Rik,” she said, still smiling at her secret joke. He looked at her. Her words obviously had more meaning to her than to him.

“If you say so, milady,” he said.

“I do.” She gave her attention back to the battle. Most of the battle wyrms were headed towards the ford now. On the backs of the leaders, horns sounded, calling the beasts to war. Behind them, the infantry surged forward. There was no way to keep formation on terrain like this, although their officers did their best to hold them into units. As they advanced into the besiegers, fire and smoke spouted from their muskets. The battlefield became obscured once more in drifting clouds of powder smoke. From inside the billows came all the horrendous sounds of combat.

More horns sounded in the distance. These were of a subtly different tone from the ones the Talorean Regiments used. Someone played a series of martial notes. Rik heard the thunder of hooves from somewhere. Moments later he saw cavalrymen racing down to the banks of the ford, sabres flashing as the hussars cut into the Talorean infantrymen. They were met by a volley of fire from atop the nearest bridgebacks. A long-necked wyrm head snaked down to rip one rider from his saddle.

A chaotic tone entered the sounds of distant bugles. Rik heard the charge of the Talorean cavalry sound off in the distance. That was strange, he thought, how had they got there? Then he remembered they had been dispatched east in the morning. They must have crossed the bridge and turned north and then west. The besiegers were caught in the claws of a pincer.

Surely now, the Taloreans must have overwhelming force, Rik thought. Surely now the battle must be decided. The obscuring smoke made it difficult to tell.

Sardec slashed the screaming soldier across the face with his hook. Only then did he realise it was one of his own men. In the madness of the melee, the wounded Forager had lashed out at him with a bayonet. Maybe it was not an accident, Sardec thought. Maybe he had known all along he was striking an officer, perhaps settling an old score. He was saved from having to decide whether the man should be court-martialled when a bayonet ripped through the human’s chest and he fell to his knees.

A monstrous ripjack wyrm loomed out of the dust and smoke. Its great jaws snapped so close to Sardec’s face that he could smell the rotting meat tang of its breath. Ferocious rage and hatred showed in its tiny mad eyes. Round its neck was a jewelled collar. The gem glowed in such a way that Sardec knew that there was an enemy officer somewhere nearby controlling it with a Leash.

Sardec rammed his hook into the creature’s mouth. The jaws slammed shut. The wyrm hissed in rage at the strange taste of the thing in its mouth. God, but the beast was strong. It moved its head and Sardec’s arm was nearly torn from its socket. Sardec smashed it in the face with his pistol butt. The wyrm let him go. More by accident than design Sardec got the tip of his hook into the creature’s eye. He drove it deeper into the jelly until it pierced the creature’s tiny brain. It died with a hiss, not a whimper.

A man in the furs of a trapper with a blue scarf wrapped around his throat glared at Sardec in triumph. Sardec lunged at him with the butt of the pistol. He held it by the still-warm barrel now, using its weighted grip as a club. The man let go of his rifle and leapt back, whipping out a long skinning knife. His smile widened. Sardec’s heart sank. This man undoubtedly knew how to use this weapon.

He came forward now, poised on the balls of his feet, confident of the kill. Sardec raised his hook and gestured for him to advance. There was still blood on it. The man flinched at the sight, which struck Sardec as unusual, then the trapper stiffened and fell, and the Lieutenant saw the bayonet protruding from his side. Sergeant Hef grinned his monkey grin up at Sardec, removed the bayonet, and then paused.

“Sounds like we’ve got company, sir,” he bellowed. “Steady, lads! Steady! Reinforcements are here!”

There was no way of telling whether what the Sergeant was saying was true but it was the right thing to say at this moment. Their own men took heart and fought with renewed fury. The men who moments ago had been so daringly leaping over the barriers now look scared and panicky.

Sardec listened and heard the blowing of bugles and the sound of wyrms. Perhaps they belonged to Azaar’s army, but at this point he realised that it did not matter. Whether the newcomers were friend or foe, his own men could not hold their embattled position for more than a few more minutes. He came to a decision.

What was important now was what the men believed, not what was true. As far as he was concerned those soldiers out there had to be on their side. He forced a confident smile on to his face, and shouted; “The Sergeant is right lads. Just a few more minutes and we’ll show these traitor bastards what for!”

Almost to his surprise, his words gave the Foragers more heart even than the Sergeant’s. A strange pride filled Sardec that they should have such faith in him. He forced his aching weary body forward, brandishing his pistol like a battle banner.

Just as surprising was the change that had come over his foes. A few moments ago they had been attacking like rabid wolverines. Now they seemed stunned. A man emerging from the smoke stood like an ox in an abattoir as Sardec pole-axed him with his pistol butt. Others began to throw down their weapons, as the contagion of panic spread. Here and there, Sardec could hear officers and Sergeants shouting and trying to keep their foes steady, but their words had a panicked quality that just added to the confusion. Sardec heard his own voice roaring and shouting mad exhortations, and he was not sure whether it held the exultation of victory or simply the relief of pent up fear of failure.

He stuck the pistol in the waistband of his britches, and stooped to pick up the long sword of a fallen enemy officer. Brandishing it left-handed he roared at his men to stand firm, to hold on, to reach out and seize victory. In his heart, his most fervent wish was that he knew what was really going on out there.

The wyrm’s rolling stride faltered for a minute. Something crunched under its enormous paw. Rik looked down and saw the flattened, broken-backed body of a man flopping behind him. Weasel’s musket banged near his ear. Rik turned and saw the former poacher reloading, calm as a man out pheasant shooting, not standing on the back of a huge beast as it forged its way across a battlefield, crushing their enemies under foot.

From their position on the creature’s back, Rik caught odd glimpses of the battle. He could peer down across some of the ridges, see into the gaps the breeze tore in the smoke clouds. Over to the right a cluster of men tore at each other with bayonets and swords, their faces demon masked by fury and fear, their teeth powder blackened. In front of them a wyrm brushed its way through the heavy cavalry horses like a man pushing through a crowd of beggar children. Behind them, the waters of the ford were stained with the blood of man and beast.

Asea looked around feverishly. Her silver mask mirrored the emotion of her face. There was a contained excitement in her manner that told Rik that in some way she was enjoying this. Perhaps it was the risk, he thought. Perhaps the fact that she might be hit by a stray ball and thus end her immortal life, added a spice that was normally missing from her days. Or perhaps it was something else entirely, some strange alien emotion that she had brought from her far home world, that he would never understand.

On the back of this huge beast, as part of a force that was so obviously overwhelming the enemy, he had no sense of personal risk, although he knew that there must still be some. He could feel the thrill of victory with far less fear than he normally felt. It was somehow less satisfying, but, if truth were told, it was enough for him at the moment.

He could see that everywhere the Taloreans were victorious. There was something about their manner, the way they moved and the way they acted, that said they were men conscious of their superiority, and certain of triumph. They had the confidence to stand their ground in the face of inevitable casualties, a confidence that was swiftly being leeched from their foes.

Rik understood why. In a few minutes the enemy had seen their positions reversed. They had gone from being the encircling army, attacking with overwhelming advantage, to being in the position they had thought their foes were in. It was the sort of psychological change that could spell disaster for an army, unless its commanders were better leaders than their foes appeared to be.

Here and there knots of men had already thrown down weapons. Others were running for the woods, or shouting for help or their mothers.

“It’s over,” said Asea, with utter certainty and not a little spite in her voice. “Let’s hope there’s somebody up there to be relieved.

It was like a dash of ice water in Rik’s face. He wondered if any of his friends were still alive.

Sardec stood atop the wall and surveyed the battlefield. It was not, as he felt it should be, silent. He could hear the bellowing of wyrms, and the frantic neighing of panicked horses, and the screams and cries of the dying alongside the victorious shouts of the Talorean soldiers. But compared to the thunderous roar of battle that had assailed his ears a few minutes ago, it might as well have been silent as the inside of a temple.

Men lay sprawled in the grass, unmoving. They looked as if they were sleeping, but he knew they were not. Dead horses looked like small hummocks. The smoke had started drifting away, to be replaced by clouds of carrion birds. He could see long columns of cavalry approaching from the East, and massive wyrms pulling artillery carriages. It looked like a good part of Azaar’s army had fallen on Esteril’s regiments with the force of a sledgehammer.

An odd sense of futility settled in Sardec. He knew he should have felt triumphant but instead he just felt tired. He had achieved what he set out to do and held the position, but at an awful cost. He told himself those corpses down there were just humans. They would have been dead in a few scant decades anyway, but he could not make himself believe it, not like he once had. He felt an urge to cry, as he had once done as a child, when contemplating the brief lives of butterflies in a poem his mother had read to him. He told himself the feeling was simply trite and cliched sentiment, but he could not even believe that, not in the way he used to.

A bedraggled bunch of Kharadrean officers limped uphill under a white flag. He could see old Esteril leading them, coming in a way to do him honour. He should have been marching to surrender his sword to the chief of the oncoming army. Instead he paused before the walls of the Inn and shouted; “Good sport, youth, bloody good sport. It seems I will not be accepting your surrender after all. Will you accept mine?”

Looking at the old Terrarch’s flushed, smiling face, Sardec felt the urge to shoot him. Instead he forced himself to say; “Of course, sir, it would be an honour.”


Chapter Six

<p>Chapter Six</p>

Sardec trudged down the hill with the captive officers. He raised his hook to accept the cheers of the soldiers and he could not help but smile at their enthusiasm. For the first time, he started to feel like he had won a victory rather than caused a pointless slaughter.

He could see enemy troops being led away at bayonet point, herded together without their weapons, under the supervision of hard-faced Talorean infantrymen. Cavalrymen, impassive and intimidating with sabres drawn, watched the defeated as they trudged by. Here and there scavengers looted the corpses of the dead, performing the traditional after-battle rituals on friend and foe alike.

Beside him, Lord Esteril kept up a steady flow of pointless chatter, going back and forth over the finer points of the battle with a connoisseur’s relish. Sardec was hard pressed to pay much attention to him. He felt like saying he had followed none of this because he had been too busy fighting for his life, but, of course, he was too polite to do so.

Ahead of him now were a number of enormous bridgeback wyrms. The high command had already dismounted and were clustered around Lord Azaar. Someone had produced a small folding canvas shooting chair for the General and he lounged in it with an appearance of ease and boredom contradicted by the bright intensity of his eyes. The whole scene was mirrored in the silvered surface of his mask.

The crowd parted as Sardec and his companions approached. Some of his fellow Terrarchs bowed to him. Others watched him with steely, calculating gazes. It dawned on Sardec that he was about to enjoy an hour of fame and that some of those glancing at him were measuring him, calculating how much they should flatter him and court his attention and bask in his reflected glory. Others were looking at him with jealousy, as if he had somehow stolen something that should rightfully have been theirs.

It was folly but he could understand it. He had been part of such a pack himself once, looking at other Terrarchs as rivals, particularly his peers. A small puff of pride swelled in his breast. He was important to these people, or at least more important than he had been, now that he was the hero of the hour.

Another part of him watched it all mockingly and with not a little contempt. At dawn he had been making life and death decisions, unsure of whether he would live to see another nightfall. Compared to that, the flattery of fools and the envy of the small-minded was nothing. His smile became a fraction colder. At that moment, he looked like a true Terrarch lord.

Amid the crowd around the General he saw Lady Asea, and the three Foragers he had sent to warn the General. Weasel still looked insolent, the Barbarian looked smug and the half-breed looked at him with barely concealed hate. Sardec guessed he had earned that in the last year, but could not quite find it in himself to regret it. What did he care for the hatred of his inferiors? The thing that surprised him was that he had even noticed it at all.

Asea herself looked at him speculatively. Her expression reminded him of a woman contemplating a candy box being offered by one of her maids. Perhaps she found cripples interesting, he thought sourly. Perhaps, after centuries of consorting with the whole of body, there was something titillating about the maimed. He told himself he was being foolish, but there was something about the Lady Asea, her calm and her self-possession, that had always made him deeply uneasy.

General Azaar rose from his chair and strode to meet Sardec. His limp was barely noticeable, but Sardec was all too aware of it. Here was somebody else who had paid the price that War demanded from her worshippers. As the General came closer, Sardec caught the whiff of the strong scent Azaar always wore to cover the rotting smell of his body. The rot was there too, concealed, and Sardec’s stomach quivered with revulsion. He understood all too well why there were some who considered Azaar’s refusal to gracefully slit his own wrists in the Halls of Forgetting to be obscene.

“It does me good to see you alive and whole, Lieutenant,” said Azaar. There did not seem to be any irony in his words. His voice was thrilling and sincere, and Sardec heard within it some of the subtle compulsions mastered by the elder Terrarchs. He could not help but feel grateful and pleased, but part of him resented being manipulated even as he basked in the glow of praise.

“Your servant, sir. It does me honour to present to you our late foe, the esteemed Lord Esteril of Morven.”

“Lord Esteril and I are old friends,” said Azaar smoothly. “It gladdens my heart to see him again even on such a sorry occasion as this.”

Lord Esteril bowed, visibly swollen by the recognition granted to him by the famous General. He bowed to Azaar and then for the first time seemed to notice Lady Asea and bowed to her too, in the old fashioned courtly way of the elderly. She nodded her head politely in return. She was not about to curtsey in this mud, Sardec guessed.

“I hope you will forgive my surrendering to this young lad, Lord Azaar. I mean no slight. It merely seemed to me that your Lieutenant’s splendid defence of his position warranted the honour.”

Things had taken on a slightly unreal quality. Men had died bleeding in the mud today, and they were all standing here talking politely and in full formal courtly ritual. And yet, he knew that it could not be any other way. The Terrarchs were like that. They were polite and they were honourable. It was one of the things that separated them from beasts and from men.

The little niggling worm of doubt returned and whispered in his ear that it was the deaths of men that had made these small rituals necessary. What of it, the true Terrarch in him responded, theirs were the lives of mayflies anyway. The worm whispered that their lives were important enough to them and he could not find it in himself to deny it.

“You must join me in my tent and tell me your stories,” said Azaar, and once again his voice was laced with compulsions. Both Sardec and Esteril nodded and moved in the direction he indicated with his gauntleted hands, to where servants had already erected a small pavilion, and were preparing food.

Behind them, bullet-torn banners, stained with mud and blood, fluttered in the breeze.

“How is that you come to be opposing our advance to help your Queen, Lord Esteril,” Azaar asked. There was no menace in Azaar’s manner, merely polite curiosity. They might have been discussing the weather. It was all very civilised.

“As you know General, my sympathies have always been with Empress Arachne and her policies. Great as my respect for you is, my loyalty is to her and my cousin Lord Malkior.” Esteril sounded quite pleased with himself.

“I had thought your loyalty was to Kharadrea.” Once again Azaar’s tone was neutral.

“While Orodruine was alive, my loyalties were clear. He was a great leader, a great Terrarch, but now…” He shrugged his shoulders and spread his hands deprecatingly. “There are two claimants to the throne, both with equally valid claims. We have been here before. We all know where that sort of situation has led in the past.”

Sardec nodded. It had split the Terrarch Imperium with Lord Azaar at the head of the Scarlet Faction, and Lord Malkior and his cronies at the head of the Purple. It had led to the weakening of firm central government, and to the granting of more and more liberties to the human subjects. Sardec could not quite bring himself to resent that the way he once had. He would need to take himself firmly in hand. It would not do to begin feeling too well-disposed towards the lower orders. They needed to be kept in their place.

“And how is Lord Ilmarec.”

“My liege is well.”

“I am very pleased to hear it. I had thought he supported Queen Kathea.”

“He still does.”

“Then why does he attack her allies?”

“He says she needs no allies. All outsiders should leave Kharadrean soil. We shall resolve our own differences.”

That brought a long silence. Outside Sardec could hear people moving and the subdued murmur of servants. In the distance a wyrm bellowed. This was news. Ilmarec had been Kathea’s strongest supporter. He was a powerful wizard and could draw on large armies from his extensive estates and his web of supporters. Azaar cocked his head to one side. Once again Sardec thought he caught the whiff of rot through the sickly sweet perfume.

“May I ask what makes him believe that is possible? Even if we withdraw I doubt the Dark Empire would.” There was the faintest hint of menace in his voice. Sardec would not have cared to have the General looking at him like that. It was too reminiscent of the way a cat looked at a mouse. He recalled some tales of his father’s concerning what happened to those who had opposed Azaar in the past.

If Lord Esteril was daunted he gave no sign. He raised his goblet to his lips and said; “This is very fine wine.” Perhaps there was more to the old dotard than there first appeared.

“It is from my cellar back on Marmoth.” Marmoth was Azaar’s estate, a great palace outside the Talorean capital city, Amber. Azaar had been given it as a reward for his victory at Three Fords. The building had been funded by the new Talorean state he had helped to found. It was a very direct reminder of who Azaar was, and whom he served.

“It does credit to your house,” said Esteril. “Lord Ilmarec has often praised your vineyards in my hearing.”

“He has visited them a few times in the past. His company gave me great pleasure.”

“I am sure your company would still give him much pleasure. I am sure he would be delighted to see you in the Serpent Tower.”

“I may have that pleasure yet,” said Azaar. “And I may take a few companions with me.”

Esteril laughed. “It would perhaps be better to go as his guest than with all your present companions. The defences of the Tower are very strong, and I am sure Lord Ilmarec will guard his home with as much flair as my young friend here.”

“I would greatly like to hear your reasons for opposing us,” said Sardec, deciding that a flank attack might be a better way of getting the information Lord Azaar desired. “There has never, to my knowledge, been any cause for animosity between Lord Ilmarec and those loyal to Queen Arielle.”

“As I have said, I believe my Lord fears a repetition of what happened when Queen Arielle and her sister, the Empress Arachne fell out. I think that is why he has taken Princess Kathea into safekeeping in the Tower.”

“Safekeeping?” Azaar’s tone was mild, but Sardec thought he detected surprise in it. Esteril smiled. He was enjoying this. Perhaps because like all Terrarchs he had a streak of vindictiveness in him, and this was the only way he could repay the Taloreans for his defeat.

“Yes, milord, safekeeping.” Or perhaps Esteril was simply letting Azaar know that his liege lord had an important hostage, and he should look out for his welfare. “While foreign armies are on the soil of Kharadrea, meaning no offence, he thought it best to take her under his protection.”

Sardec smiled. “Did Queen Kathea agree to this?”

“But, of course.”

“And he sent you to oppose our advance — because we are a hostile foreign army?” Azaar asked.

“I regret to say that is the case.”

“He is taking a terrible risk,” Azaar said. “His borders are far closer to Talorea than to the Dark Empire. It is well to keep on good terms with your neighbours. Her Majesty may demand reparations for the casualties inflicted on her forces by one she considered an ally.”

Sardec sensed the currents here. Wizard or not, Ilmarec was surely as aware of the political realities as anyone. What had given him the confidence to deny a neighbour with the power to crush him?

“Lord Ilmarec has retired to his tower and prepares great magic which he assures us will see that no outsider will alter the destiny of Kharadrea.”

“We both know there is no magic so powerful in this world,” said Azaar reasonably. “In Al’Terra perhaps, but not here.” That was a painful subject for all of them. They had lost so much when they had left their former home world. Magical energy was simply not as abundant here, and the most potent spells could no longer be worked.

“Lord Ilmarec thinks differently. He is a great wizard, as great as your sister, my Lord, and just as knowledgeable in his chosen fields. One of those is the Serpent Men, my dear Azaar, as you will remember.”

Esteril was in full flow now. There was a boastful quality to his speech that might have been the wine talking or perhaps it was just the Terrarch’s normal personality. Azaar had known the Lord in the past, Sardec remembered. Perhaps he’d chosen this method to draw him out.

“He has been dabbling in the lost secrets of the ancients?” There was a note of scorn in Azaar’s voice that did not sound at all feigned.

“Don’t mock, my Lord. The Elder Races had their secrets, and their sorcery was quite as powerful as our own, perhaps even more powerful. Lord Ilmarec has already demonstrated the power of his new weapons.”

“Really?” Azaar was not so impolite as to imply disbelief but his voice held a certain sly mockery.

“Really, sir, really. A few of Kathea’s retainers objected to her being closeted away with Lord Ilmarec and tried, as they saw it, to release her. Lord Manesi threatened to attack the tower with his regiment. His wizards were ordered to summon a company of elementals.”

“What happened?” Sardec asked. He noticed an odd quality had entered Esteril’s manner. He had seen something similar among humans at religious meetings.

“They were destroyed, my young friend, destroyed instantly and forever. The regiment, the wizards, the elementals — all were destroyed in a moment.”

“There are many sorceries that could do that,” said Azaar. “Particularly if they were attempting to assault a fortress as strong as the Serpent Tower.”

Azaar sounded a little disturbed.

“This was no common sorcery. I saw it with my own eyes. A beam of green light emerged from the Tower and the soldiers were slain. There were only scorched fragments left of their bodies. A whole regiment slaughtered in a heartbeat, despite all the wards and mystical protections the wizards had erected. In all my days, I have never seen magic of such power.”

Sardec thought he was starting to understand some of what had happened here. Esteril, although he would never have admitted it, was more frightened of Ilmarec than he was of Azaar. And if Ilmarec really had destroyed Kathea’s bodyguard there could be little doubt as to where he stood, could there? He had definitely aligned himself with the enemy.

The further import of Esteril’s words sank in. If Ilmarec really had access to some dreadful Elder World weapon, things could go very badly wrong for the Azaar’s army. He might be able to destroy their entire force before they could ever breach the walls of his tower.

“You have spoken to Lord Ilmarec since he did this, of course?” said Azaar.

“I have not, my Lord. My orders came from Queen Kathea under her seal and Lord Ilmarec’s. I have spent time on my estate rallying my forces for the coming struggle. What are you going to do with my men?”

Azaar considered for a moment and said. “The standard terms. I will enlist those who wish to join my army. Those who don’t can go home without their weapons or gear.”

“It’s not total war then,” said Esteril, he sounded relieved. “In the fashion of Koth.”

“You know me better than that, my friend.”

“Of course,” said Esteril, but his tone made it plain that he was not so sure. Azaar had not taken to the field since Koth had completely changed the way wars were fought. “It’s good to know that there are still some who hold to the old ways.”

“Obviously Ilmarec does not,” said Azaar pointedly.

Silence fell between them and then Esteril said, “I regret to inform you that I cannot join your army, Lord Azaar. My sympathies are with the Purple Faction and the Queen-Empress.”

“I understand perfectly, Lord Esteril. If you will give me your word that you will return to your palace and not take to the field against me or my Queen again during this war, you are free to go.”

Lord Esteril rose and bowed. Something inside him seemed to break at that moment. “Lord Azaar, if you will take my advice, do not go near the Serpent Tower with your army. Although it pains me to say it, I do not think you will find that Lord Ilmarec will fight as honourably as you and he has access to a weapon the like of which we never dreamed of in the old days.”

“Thank you for your council, sir. I will certainly give it due weight in my deliberations.”

“By your leave, Lord Azaar, I would like to make preparations for my departure.”

“By all means,” said Azaar. Esteril bowed and left.

Azaar turned to Sardec. “It seems the situation in Kharadrea is more complicated than I thought.”

“It would seem so, sir.”

“It does not surprise me. Things are rarely simple, particularly not when ambitious Terrarchs sense an opportunity for self-advancement.”

“You mean Lord Esteril, sir.”

“He certainly sought glory attacking us, but he is not who I mean. I was thinking of Lord Ilmarec.”

“The Serpent Tower is said to be impregnable, sir.”

“I have every reason to agree with that assessment.”

“What can we do about it, sir? If Ilmarec really has Queen Kathea and intends to side with the Dark Empire, this war is over before it has even started.”

“I think our first order of business should be to find out what Lord Ilmarec’s intentions really are. Don’t you Lieutenant?”

“Indeed, sir.”

“Excellent, I knew you would be the officer for the job.”


Chapter Seven

<p>Chapter Seven</p>

Lady Asea strode down to the stream. Rik and his comrades accompanied her. Her bodyguard, Karim, silent as a shadow, drifted along behind them. Asea inspected the bodies that remained in the water waiting to be dragged away and burned. The pyres had already been built behind them, and Rik could hear the regimental chaplains chanting the words of the ceremony.

Asea paused for a minute and contemplated the carnage. “Do you have any idea where you saw the Serpent Man statue?” she asked eventually.

“I reckon I could find it, milady,” said Weasel. “We left a track a blind man could follow when we blundered away from the river last night.”

“Lead on then,” she said.

Weasel found the riverbank where they had struggled ashore, and the bushes they had trampled as they walked away. Rik was not sure a blind man could have followed their tracks, but Weasel certainly could.

“Best be careful, milady,” Weasel said as they continued along the track. “There may be enemy around here who fled the battle. They’d see us as a nice juicy target.”

Asea simply tapped the hilt of the wand that was holstered on her belt. “If they do, they may be surprised.”

“As you say, milady.”

“May we ask why you are interested in this Serpent Man site, Lady Asea?” Rik asked. All three of them were dying to know, but he seemed to be the only one with the nerve to raise the question.

“I am interested in anything to do with these creatures. They are said to have died out in this part of the world millennia ago.”

“Could there be ghosts, milady?” the Barbarian asked. He seemed tongue-tied, quite in contrast to his normal manner of speech.

“Perhaps. There are strange sorcerous currents in this area and tau is strong and tainted here.”

Rik was not at all reassured by even the possibility of some ancient and doubtless infernal being involved in last night’s encounter. Enough of his temple orphanage upbringing remained to occasionally make him fear for his soul.

They emerged beside the shores of the circular lake. Asea looked at it thoughtfully.

“Is this artificial?” Rik asked. “It looks more like a carp pond than a lake. Like someone made it, but it’s so big.” He realised something else now that he looked at it in the daylight. “The edges are so steep it is almost like a crater.”

Asea said, “Legend has it that an ancient fortress of the Serpent Men stood on this spot.”

“What happened to it?” Rik asked.

“No one knows. It may be only a legend. Certainly there is no sign of it now. We’d best get on if we are going to find this statue of yours…”

“This is the place,” said Weasel as they entered a grove. The woods were dense around them, cutting off a good deal of the sunlight. Rik noticed now that the rise on which the statue of the Serpent Man stood actually had brickwork emerging from it. There appeared to be other humps and bumps around them, hinting at more buried buildings, or perhaps something else. It reminded him of a necropolis.

“The Scaled Lords dwelt here, mistress,” Karim said. “The statue is of one of the Nest Guardian caste although one larger and heavier than any guardian I ever encountered.”

All three Foragers had turned to study the bodyguard. So the rumours were true and Karim was indeed from the Southern continent.

“Are they dangerous?” Rik asked.

“A Nest Guardian’s jaws can tear off a man’s arm with one bite. They are as deadly with their blades as Ninth Element Swordmaster.”

“Well that certainly improved my understanding of the situation,” muttered Weasel.

“A Ninth Element Swordmaster?” the Barbarian asked. He looked bemused.

“I am only of the Seventh Element,” said Karim, as if that explained everything. “Very few humans reach even that far.”

“What Karim is saying is that you were lucky you did not encounter one in the flesh,” said Lady Asea. “It might have been more than a match for even three such stalwart warriors as yourselves.”

Rik looked for traces of sarcasm in that remark but could not find any. It seemed Asea was sincere, at least as far as he could judge.

“The question is, what is this site?”

“I cannot say, mistress,” said Karim.

“I reckon I could have taken it,” whispered the Barbarian to Rik. Rik just nodded. His whole attention was focused on Asea and Karim. The pair had access to lore that was not common even among the thieves of Sorrow, who liked to think themselves well informed on every esoteric subject under the sun.

Asea inspected the pattern of the mosaic they had seen the night before. She questioned them about what they had witnessed in a way that made Rik feel very uncomfortable. After a while she produced a blue crystal from her purse. She moved around the area muttering in a manner that made the hairs on the back of Rik’s neck rise.

The crystal glowed faintly, and as it did so, the look on Asea’s face became more thoughtful. It seemed they had indeed found something of interest to the sorceress, although he did not dare ask what. They spent the next several hours watching her pace out the dimensions of the site, and all of them were grateful when she ordered them to rejoin the army just as the sun started to head down on the horizon. This was not a place any of them wanted to be in after dark.

They found a message waiting when they returned to camp. The Lord Azaar requested the Lady Asea’s presence at his tent urgently.

Sardec watched Lady Asea sweep into the command pavilion, beautiful even in her armour. The rest of the high officers looked at her appreciatively, even thin-faced, precise Colonel Xeno, who Sardec knew disliked her intensely. He felt self-conscious here among all these older more experienced officers and two of the First and wondered at his presence.

“Your presence gladdens me, Lady,” said Azaar then tapped the map on the table in front of him with a knuckle. “I would appreciate any insights your wisdom might give us with our current problem.”

He proceeded to explain what Esteril had said about Ilmarec, and about the weapon of green light, and then pointed to the map.

“As you can see, Morven controls access to the Mor River at this point. Command of that is essential if we are to proceed further north towards Orodruine's old capital at Halim. We need it for transport and we need it for supply.”

“You are absolutely certain that Ilmarec has access to these Elder World weapons, my Lord,” asked Asea. Azaar shook his head.

“We only have Esteril’s words and he may be lying or deceived. But I have some of our people talking with the prisoners, and the new recruits, and most of them confirm the story. Just the possibility of it is worrying. If so large a force was destroyed by sorcery we need to know how. I will not risk the destruction of my command. Do you have anything you wish to say, Lady Asea?”

“We found the ruins of a Serpent Man settlement in the woods today.”

“The Serpent Men have been dead these last several millennia, milady,” said Colonel Xeno in his clipped dry voice. “You are not suggesting that Ilmarec has allied with them surely?” He laughed at his own witticism. A few of the other officers joined in. The wiser ones kept quiet till they heard Asea’s reply.

“No, but the place was definitely the site of powerful sorcery recently. Last night, in fact.”

“What sort of sorcery?” Azaar asked.

“I am not sure. Its nature is dissimilar to our own magic so I cannot even hazard a guess.”

“Is this the place our three messengers discovered last night?” Xeno asked. Asea nodded.

“Have they been disturbing things best left undisturbed again?” Xeno knew all about the business at Achenar. Not all of those present did. The matter had been hushed up quite comprehensively, but it could not be kept from the regiment’s own Colonel.

Asea pursed her lips. “I don’t think so. I think they may simply have happened on it.”

“Is this magic any threat to the army?” Azaar asked. The room fell silent as they waited for her answer.

“Whatever it is, I do not think it is fully functioning,” Asea said. “What I detected were mostly residual energies.”

“Mostly?” said Azaar.

“I think the site is part of a huge pattern. My guess would be that it is centred on the Serpent Tower itself. If Ilmarec has been working great sorcery there, it would leave traces on any pattern connected to it.”

“Why would there be a part of a pattern out here?” asked Xeno.

“Patterns are made for many reasons,” said Asea. “Some of them to feed energy into a central locus. Some of them because they are essential to define the boundaries of a ward or a permanent scrying spell.”

“You think we may be within the boundaries of such a spell,” asked Azaar.

“Almost certainly, or we will be if we pass the ruins.”

“Perhaps Esteril was right,” said Azaar. He sounded thoughtful.

“It’s a rather worrying thought that one of the Serpent Men’s weapons might be used against us,” said Colonel Ascogne of the 17 ^ ^th Hussars. He crinkled his handsome brow and stroked his pencil thin cavalryman’s moustache to show exactly how worried he was. “I am sure none of us have forgotten what happened at Ssaharoc.”

Ssaharoc had been one of the Terrarchs greatest defeats in this world. They had lost an entire fleet to the Serpent Men of the Southern Continent. Sardec’s own train of thoughts were on his recent encounter with Uran Ultar and his slave race, the Ultari. He remembered Asea’s theory that it was no accident either. Could there be a connection? He wondered whether he should bring this up, but decided to keep his own council. If the witch wanted to bring this up now, she could do it herself. If she didn’t want to discuss it, he would only look foolish doing so.

Azaar spoke; “Our main problem would still appear to be Ilmarec. Even without these putative weapons the Tower of the Serpent is a near impregnable fortress. As far as we know not even dragonfire can scorch its walls and it is protected against sorcery by enchantments of awesome power. Is that not so, Lady Asea?”

She nodded. “They are charms of a range and strength we cannot duplicate now. I would not like to try a spell against them. I suspect there would be backlash.”

“If these rumours are true then the future Queen of Kharadrea is imprisoned in an impregnable fortress guarded by a malignant sorcerer. Our cause seems lost before we even begin to fight,” said Xeno sourly. “Truly this is a cursed land.”

Sardec remembered Xeno has lost a brother here fighting against Koth. He detested the place and he was not scared to let it show even in the presence of his commanding officers. All eyes focused on Azaar. Everyone wanted to know what he had to say. When he spoke his voice was calm and filled with confidence.

“We do not know whether any of this is true. Much is merely rumour and speculation. We need to know whether Ilmarec is really against us, whether he has Kathea, whether he has these Elder World weapons. Once we have established the facts of the matter we can come up with a plan for victory.”

“Victory, Lord Azaar?” Xeno asked.

“Victory, Colonel. There must be things Ilmarec wants and he must know that he cannot defy the will of Queen Arielle forever. The facts of geography are on our side. His lands are much closer to our borders than those of the Dark Empire’s. We can bring enormous force to bear if need be. And there are more ways of taking a tower than by storm.”

Some of the officers were nodding agreement. There were always some who would, Sardec thought. They doubtless thought currying favour with the commander was the quickest way to promotion and power. Xeno was not so easily daunted.

“I doubt Lord Ilmarec is less familiar with the facts of geography than we are, my Lord,” he said. “He is probably placing more faith in chronography. He does not have to hold us off forever, only until Khaldarus is on the throne and the Dark Empire throws its full force against us. We have fought that war before, sir, and this time there is no Koth to stand as a buffer between us and them.”

“You are correct, Colonel,” said Azaar. “Time presses so we should be about our business. I wish to send Lieutenant Sardec as an emissary to Lord Ilmarec to open negotiations with him.”

“With your permission, I would like to accompany the Lieutenant,” said Lady Asea. “I know Lord Ilmarec. We were friends once. And I would like to study the Tower. There is something odd going on with the flows of magic in this area, and I suspect it is the nexus of the problem.”

Azaar looked at her for a moment, and Sardec knew he was considering the risks. Asea was the most powerful sorcerer in his army. Losing her would be as big a blow as losing a battery of artillery.

“Are you sure you will be safe?” he asked.

“I will have a strong escort I am sure. Lieutenant Sardec and I have been through some dangerous situations before and I have every faith in him.”

Sardec just looked at her. The last time he had been in a dangerous situation with Lady Asea he had lost his hand, and damn near his life.

“Very well,” said Lord Azaar. “We shall discuss the details later.”

What was the witch up to this time, Sardec wondered? He wondered until the staff meeting ended.

Rik watched the new recruits being sworn in. They stood in a long line in front of the table before which the Sergeant Major stood, and one by one advanced, placed their hand on a stone carved with Fyel, the Elder Sign of Faith, swore the oath and took the Queen’s silver. Their names were inscribed in the regimental register and they marched off. This evening they were soldiers in the army they had been fighting this morning.

“Most of those bastards will probably desert afore they hear their first shot fired in anger,” said the Barbarian.

“True,” said Rik. “But some of them won’t. Some of them will stay and make good soldiers. Anyway, it’s not our problem, is it?”

“Never a truer word spoken, Halfbreed,” said Weasel.

“Wonder when we will be heading on to Morven?” said Barbarian. “I could do with seeing a proper town and the inside of a proper tavern.”

“No idea,” said Weasel. “You’d think it’d be soon, but I heard Lord Ilmarec has turned against us and that Dark Empire troops are already in town.”

“Something is going on,” said Handsome Jan, breaking off from studying his profile in his little shard of mirror. “Nobody expected to be fighting so soon, did they? How did the bloody Purples get here so fast, that’s what I’d like to know.”

“I’m sure General Azaar will be over to explain it to you himself when he finds out about your displeasure at being kept in the dark,” said Weasel.

“Ha-bloody-ha. Hey, Halfbreed, isn’t that your girl?”

Halfbreed looked over and saw Rena, dark haired and beautiful as ever, walking into the camp, accompanied by two others. His heart skipped a beat. His mouth suddenly felt dry. He had not expected to ever see her again.

“She’s not my girl,” he said sourly.


Chapter Eight

<p>Chapter Eight</p>

Rik fought down the urge to slide away and hide out somewhere. He felt embarrassed and confused as well as afraid and angry. There was no reason he should feel this way. Rena was the one who had behaved badly. She was the one who had gone off with Lieutenant Sardec. Anyway, she was just a girl with whom he had a fling with for a couple of days a few months ago and had not seen since. He told himself all of these things, and none of them made the slightest bit of difference.

“I think she’s seen you, Halfbreed,” said Weasel, smirking. Rik remembered spending a long drunken evening whining to him about the business before the company had ventured into Deep Achenar. He had hoped that was forgotten. He should have remembered that in the Forager’s world nothing was ever forgotten. It was merely buried deep, to be dug up and used to make fun of you when needed.

“Go talk to the girl, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. “She looks as if she wants to talk to you.”

Rena smiled and waved and looked very happy, which rather surprised Rik, given the sullen circumstances under which they had last met.

“Probably wants something,” said Weasel. “Women always do.”

“Usually it's my manly body,” said the Barbarian. “And who can blame them?”

“Better talk to her before she throws herself at our Northern friend here,” said Weasel. “Sorry! Did I touch a raw nerve there?”

“You’re a nasty man,” said Rik.

“It was my upbringing,” Weasel said. “A cruel childhood followed by a lifetime of soldiering turned me into the miserable specimen I am today.”

“You say that as if you are proud of it.”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Rena and her friends were walking towards them. If he didn’t want the lads standing around and eavesdropping so they could joke about it afterwards, he’d better intercept her.

Rik strode to meet her. His face felt made of cast iron. He could not force it to take on any other expression except disapproval. He had always had a glib tongue and a deceptive manner, a professional thief in Sorrow needed one, but right now, his nerves were stretched tight and he did not seem to be able to dissemble in the slightest.

He met the girl in the muddy avenue between the lines of tents. They stood looking at each other. Rena looked radiantly pretty but it was obvious she was holding the smile on her face by an effort of will. Her friends stood a little distance apart, their hands over their mouths, trying to stifle giggles. Their attitude annoyed him as much as his own friends had. He disliked having an audience in what should be private moments.

“I did not expect to see you again,” he said, cursing himself for the way the words sounded, stilted and formal and stupid but something deep within him seemed to want things that way, was determined to make everything as difficult as possible. He remembered such moments before with Sabena, his first real love, where he had wanted to say one thing, and yet an entirely different set of words had emerged from his mouth as though scripted by a stranger. He could tell from Rena’s expression that this was not what she had been hoping to hear.

“I thought I would see you here,” she said. “I mean, I hoped I would.”

“Why?” he asked. His voice was cold. He was locked into the role now. He could not have stopped himself even if he had wanted to. She looked away towards where the pavilions of the Terrarchs stood.

“I thought…” She stopped and chewed the lower part of her lip. She looked really very lovely. Rik saw that her friends had stopped giggling and were looking at him disapprovingly, belligerently even. Let them, he thought. He did not care what they thought. He did not care what anyone thought.

“You thought what?” he asked. Other soldiers were looking at them now. He knew why; three new girls in camp, without any male companions. Rik glanced at them, and something they saw in his face made the soldiers move on.

“I thought…I don’t know what I thought. I thought you might be glad to see me.” I am, he wanted to say. “I’m not,” his angry vindictive voice said. As soon as the words were out of his mouth and he saw the damage done, he regretted it.

“You’re a bastard,” she said.

“I know. I told you that.”

Regret flickered across her face. “That’s not what I meant.”

“I don’t care what you meant. I don’t care why you are here. Maybe you should try Lieutenant Sardec. I am sure he would be glad to see you.”

He turned and strode away.

“You really told her,” said the Barbarian. “She’s crying.”

“Piss off,” Rik told him.

Rik lay on his back and looked up at the stars. He lay on the soft hillside, far from the tents. He did not want to be with his friends at the moment. He wanted to be alone, to calm down. He could hear the sounds of the camp settling down for the night: soldiers arguing, children crying, women chatting. In the distance wyrms bellowed sleepily. From somewhere came the sound of a small group of Terrarch officers playing their complex and weirdly beautiful music. It did not help. He still seethed with rage: at Rena, at his stupid friends, at Sardec, at Asea, at the world.

He was surprised by the deep well of emotion he had found inside himself. It was like opening a magic door and discovering a whole new continent of anger and resentment. He realised how much he had been keeping these feelings on a leash over the past few months. He saw the rage that was in him still, against the world, the Terrarchs, the things that had killed Leon, and would most likely kill him. And he saw that, somehow, some connection had been forged between Rena and that world of emotion and betrayal. He had let his guard down for just one instant, he thought, and she had hurt him. And he was not going to allow that to happen again.

How was it that a woman he had known for such a short time had managed to get so completely under his skin?

She was out there now. He could find her if he wanted, and tell her exactly what he thought of her. His pointless futile rage demanded it of him, that he should find her and rend at her emotionally, as she had torn at him.

She had clearly expected him to behave differently. Did she think he was stupid? Did she really think he would want to be with her after what had happened?

A shadow fell on him. Rik looked up and was surprised to see Karim standing there. Either he was very distracted or Karim was very quiet, or both. The Southerner studied him for a moment. “It has cost me a great deal of effort to find you,” Karim said. His eyes caught the light like those of a dog. What had been done to this man, Rik wondered?

“You must have a good reason to keep you at it for so long. Would you like to share it with me?” He immediately regretted the flippant tone of his words. Karim gave the impression of being someone he did not want to get on the wrong side of.

“My mistress desires your company.” Karim’s words were polite. His tone was calm and yet somehow he managed to seem immensely threatening. Rik told himself it was just his imagination, but he knew it was not.

“Then perhaps you should lead me to her.”

“Follow me,” said Karim. Rik was glad of the distraction.

Sardec walked through the camp. After the battle and the meeting of the officers, he had a sense of letdown at being left with his own company. He did not want to go back to his tent. He did not want to try and sleep. He was not sure what he wanted. He was restless.

Soon he would have to leave for Morven. He would have to escort Lady Asea on her mission to talk with Lord Ilmarec. His role was pre-ordained and subordinate. Although Asea had no formal military rank, he would be serving her. She was of the First, and enjoyed the confidence of both Queen Arielle and the General. She knew Ilmarec of old, so she was a far more suitable emissary than he.

He turned and stalked down through another line of tents, where the humans sat round the camp fires and talked. Whole families had gathered there; mothers holding children, fathers telling stories. Sardec felt something like envy. He knew he should despise the humans for their weakness, for their constant breeding, for their lack of self-control, but he could not help but wonder what it would be like to part of one of those families.

Among Terrarchs children were rare. Sometimes they came decades, even centuries apart, often they never came at all. There was often a greater gap in age than there was between those human children and their parents or even grandparents. The relationships he had with all his relatives, even those he loved and admired like his father, were cool and distant.

Had he missed something growing up? Servants and tutors had raised him, and many of those had been humans, forbidden to get close to him, although he could see now what he had never allowed himself to see before, that many of them had cared for him in ways that they were not allowed to express. He told himself that it was absurd that he should care about that or the feelings he had never shared with his ayahs and teachers, but he found that he did.

He watched a man and a woman stride off into the dark arm in arm, and he knew what they were about. It drove his thoughts to another darker turn, to the events of Solace night when he had slept with that human girl. It had been the most erotically charged moment of his life, a shameful pleasure that he had thought he would enjoy again, but had not, for shortly thereafter he had been dispatched to Deep Achenar, and had lost his hand. The next few months had been spent recuperating from his wounds, listlessly enduring spells and surgery and drugs that dulled his senses and his appetites. Now he found his mind turning to thoughts of sex again, and of other things, he did not want to discuss with his fellow officers.

He knew there were others who had done such things, who sated their lusts, but it seemed to him to be a very coarse thing, and not something to be talked about. To be honest he had not seen another human wench who had moved him the way the first one had. Perhaps it was the wound, or perhaps it was the circumstances on that fatal night had been particularly unfortunate.

Just as these thoughts crossed his mind, he caught sight of a strangely familiar face. It was so odd that he had to look again to be certain that he was correct and he was disturbed to discover that he was. It was the human girl, Rena, sitting near a fire with two other women, and two men. They seemed to be arguing about something, and Sardec would have walked past had not one of the men lunged at the girl, half-playfully, half angrily, seemingly determined to have his way by force. It was the sort of thing that Sardec supposed must happen often in the camp. Certainly none of the passers-by seemed disposed to interfere, but it struck him as wrong so he strode over and said:

“What is going on here?” The man looked up angrily, about to utter a curse until he noticed who and what Sardec was. His face went calm and cold for he feared the whipping that Sardec could order if not shown the correct degree of respect.

“Nothing, sir. Just having a bit of fun.” Sardec turned to the girl. She looked astonished, for she had obviously just recognised him. Sardec found himself stirred by her lush beauty as he had been before.

“Is that true?” he asked.

“I am sure Jamis meant no harm, sir.” She sounded torn between telling the truth and getting the man into very painful trouble.

“A word with you, girl.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“In private.”

The others took the hint and moved away. They look relieved to be going. Rena looked nervous. Now that they were alone Sardec found that he did not quite know what he was going to say.

“I did not think I would see you again,” he said. “You did not seem like one of the girls who follows the army.”

Her eyes locked on his quite boldly. He held her gaze.

“I was not happy at Ma Horne’s, after the army left. It was not so busy and the men were not so…interesting. And there was someone with the army that I was fond of although we were together but for a little time.”

Sardec has not realised he had made such a deep impression on the girl. He was astonished to find he was even a little touched. “I am pleased to see you.”

She looked as if she did not know whether she wanted to laugh or to cry. “I am glad someone is,” she said. Her words seemed odd to him, but he had not much experience of these situations.

“Do you have a place to sleep?” he asked.

“We came with a merchant caravan out of Redtower. We have only just arrived. That is what we were discussing with those soldiers. My friends and I wanted a place to stay. We were talking about it, when you arrived.”

It was quite common for some of the officers to keep human women. It would not be difficult for him to arrange a place for her to stay if he wanted. The question was whether he wanted to. Did he need this complication to his life? There was not much left to be ashamed of. His younger fellows knew what had happened on Solstice and seemed even to respect him more for it. The trip to Deep Achenar and his wound had gained him a lot of prestige and his defence of the fort and reception by Lord Azaar still more. He doubted a thing like this would hurt his reputation and he did not care.

Something had happened to him at Deep Achenar. He raised the hook to look at it. He had almost died in that hell-pit. He might well die during the course of this war. Why should he care about appearances? Why should he not have what he wanted, if he was willing to pay the price? He wanted this girl and he found he even sympathised with her a little.

“I will arrange it,” he said. He spoke it as a Terrarch should to a human, peremptorily, with every expectation of getting no objections, then he saw she too was looking at his hook. It struck him that perhaps she felt revulsion towards it, the way he sometimes did, and he realised that he did not want her there if she could only look on him with horror so he added; “If you wish.”

She raised her hand to her mouth and looked at him. He wondered if she had read his own feelings on his face. “My friends, sir. They have no place to go.”

“I will see to it that they are looked after as well.” And he would. He had come to a decision. Even if the girl could not stand the sight of his hand, he would see to it. He would do it because he wanted to, and it pleased him to do so.

“I will go with you, sir,” she said. There was trust in her voice. That touched Sardec too.

“Is something bothering you, Master Rik,” said Karim. He paused to look around. They were in the Terrarch part of the camp, and in the distance, he could see Rena and her two friends walking along in the company of none other than Lieutenant Sardec.

“No,” Rik lied. He might have bloody well guessed. What had he expected? It had not taken her long to find her Terrarch lover had it. He did not know why he had expected better. Sardec was an officer. He was rich. It did not matter to her that he would use her and discard her once he was fed up of her. She could not see past the glitter of his noble title. She deserved what was going to happen to her, and he was glad.

Only why did it have to be Sardec? He could have accepted any of the other officers, but not him. Sardec had made his life miserable from the get-go. Sardec hated him for being who he was. She must know that too. It was as if she had deliberately chosen this to annoy him.

Well, what did it matter? He wrenched his mind away from Rena and forced himself to concentrate on what the Lady Asea might want. She was, after all, the most dangerous person he had ever met.


Chapter Nine

<p>Chapter Nine</p>

Asea had placed her tent on the hill where the rest of the Terrarchs had pitched theirs, but hers was slightly apart, in the space between the land used by the officers and the army’s sorcerers. There was a clear area all around, as it were being shunned even by other Terrarchs.

The tent was the same sorcerous self-erecting structure she had used on the trek to Deep Achenar. Just the sight of it filled Rik with foreboding. That was an adventure that had not turned out well. It had led to the death of his closest friend and an encounter with an ancient demon god. They had been lucky to get out of Achenar with their lives.

Rik felt as if unseen eyes were watching him, which perhaps they were. The Magisters of the army had most likely placed warding spells on the area, and there were sentries among the tents to make sure nothing untoward happened to the High Command while they slept.

Karim gestured for him to wait and disappeared inside the tent. A moment later, he reappeared and held the tent flap open, ushering Rik inside. As the youth stepped inside he felt as if he were passing through an invisible barrier. It was much quieter within than without. The night sounds of the camp were all but inaudible. Here was a subtle magic, he thought.

The tent’s interior was a small, separate world of luxury. Thick carpets from the southern lands covered the floor. A glowstone set on a rune-marked brass tripod provided light and a little heat. Incense rose from small stands in each corner. Lady Asea sat in a corner on a folding chair reading a book; in front of her was a small portable table. On it stood a silver tea service and cups. She looked up as he entered. In the shadows, her inhuman face had a sinister loveliness.

“You wanted to see me, milady?” Rik said. He knew it was not his place to speak first, but he was in a mood to test things.

“Yes, Rik, I do. There is much that we should talk about and we can do it here without eavesdroppers. The spells that keep the noise out also keep our words unheard by any but us.”

“Is such secrecy necessary, milady? I am but a common soldier.”

“I am rather afraid it is, Rik, and there is no need to call me milady, at least here in private.”

“Thank you, milady.”

“I have not forgotten about you, Rik, while I was away. Quite the contrary, I have been looking into your background. I’ve been to Sorrow among other places.”

“I had not realised my past was that important.”

“It is good that you did not. I fear you might have drawn unwelcome attention to yourself if you did.”

“What do you mean?”

“All in good time. This is a story best told with all the events in their proper order.”

Rik said nothing. If she was determined to be mysterious there was nothing he could do about it.

She gestured for him to take a seat and indicated that he should help himself to some tea. He sat but he did not drink. He studied her face. Lady Asea was said to be over two thousand years old but there was no trace of age in her features, no lines, no coarsening of the skin. There was no real sign of it in her eyes, which were larger than a mortals, and somehow inhuman, although he could not put his finger on exactly why. Perhaps the pupils were slightly bigger; perhaps the iris was flecked in a subtle way. She did not seem discomposed by his scrutiny, but returned it just as levelly.

“I visited the Temple Orphanage on Rose Street,” she said. “A depressing place.”

Just the words brought the memories back with feverish intensity. The gloomy corridors, the cobwebs in high places, the musty smell forever at war with the reek of cabbage cooking, the dimness and the sounds of children crying, and the endless chanting of joyless prayers.

“I always found it so,” he said.

“I am not surprised. The ratepayers of Sorrow are not overly generous in their support of the unfortunate. But that need not concern us here. What should concern us is that I found your name and your mother’s on the Temple register. And I talked to the Master in charge”

“Pternius?” His image flickered through Rik’s mind, a tall, doleful looking Terrarch, not cruel like some of the Temple masters, just disappointed as if he had expected better from life and not found it.

“The same. He remembered a boy called Rik, who ran away when he was eight along with a boy called Leon. He also remembered the night when your mother was brought in. The Temple is not just an orphanage, it’s an almshouse and a hospital for the poor.”

Rik had been too little to really understand that when he had lived there, but his memories of the place confirmed this to his adult understanding. He remembered the chambers with the sick and the mad and the dying, and the priests constantly coming and going, and the prayers, always the prayers.

“He remembered my mother?”

“Yes, he did. It was a difficult birth and there was something of a scandal. Poor Pternius seemed quite frightened. There was a cover up.”

Rik looked at her sharply. Her expression had not changed. It was still calm but somehow there was an intensity in her voice that had not been there before.

“A cover up.”

“Yes. The poor girl was terrified and babbling about all sorts of things. She spoke of dark sorcery, of thanatomancy and old forbidden rituals.”

“Thanatomancy?”

“A peculiarly vile form of dark magic,” said Asea. “Vampiric, forbidden on pain of death even to Terrarchs.”

“My mother knew about this?”

“She described it. Pternius reported it to the Magistrate. He was told to keep quiet, that the matter was already under investigation.”

“Was it?”

“The District Magistrate then was called Areoc. He has left Sorrow. I have instigated an effort to track him down.”

“So you are no closer to knowing what happened.”

“I found some of Areoc’s constables from that time. They were humans, mostly old men now. They talked. There had been an investigation. A woman called Ilara, the same name your mother gave Pternius, had reported a killing that looked suspiciously like a thanatomantic sacrifice eight months previously. She answered to the description of your mother that Pternius gave me.”

A strange feeling pressed down on Rik, as they discussed this woman he had never known, his mother.

“You know what my mother looked like? Tell me?” It came out sounding oddly eager and pathetic. What might have been sympathy flickered across Asea’s face.

“A young woman not much older than you are now, about 20, tall, good looking, black hair, a mole on her neck roughly where you have one. Not very well educated, a prostitute the constables thought.” Rik tried to picture this stranger and found he could not. He had half-hoped that some vague primordial memory would be stirred but nothing came.

“So young? Do you think she might still be alive?” Asea shook her head.

“She died about a month after giving birth to you. Murdered, the constable said. Same way as in the killing she had reported, same way as she babbled to the midwives about, the ritual of the Black Blade.”

“The Black Blade?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Believe me, I do.”

“The victim is gutted while still alive, tortured with small hooks attached to the sorcerer by enchanted wires. He devours her soul as she passes and feeds on the energy.”

“Devours her soul?” Rik was stunned and angry and sad all at once.

“It gives the sorcerer energy, prolongs their life, rejuvenates them.”

“It was a human who did this then,” said Rik. “I mean no Terrarch would need to do that. You don’t age.”

Asea shook her head. The look she gave him carried a complex mix of emotions. “You have a lot to learn, Rik. There are many, many reasons why a Terrarch would do this. In this place we do age, just much more slowly than you do.”

“But you…you are almost two thousand years old and you don’t look any older than I do.”

“There are reasons for that, Rik. One of them was that I was born in the Sacred Land before the coming of the Princes of Shadow. Terrarchs born here, on Gaeia, age much more quickly.”

“Did a Terrarch kill my mother then?” It would not have surprised him. It was one more tally to be added to the long score he had to settle with them.

“I believe so. Certainly the sacrifice she claimed to have witnessed was performed by a Terrarch.”

“How could she have seen such a sacrifice and lived?”

“I don’t know. It may be the sorcerer was engrossed by the ritual. It may be the sorcerer was so drugged he did not notice her. An enormous amount of potent narcotics must be consumed during such rites.”

“You seem very familiar with such things…” Asea recoiled as if slapped then she laughed.

“You do not know the seriousness of that accusation, Rik. I have had Terrarchs killed for less, and killed them myself.”

He saw he was on very shaky ground, and had not realised it. They had been talking so familiarly that he had almost forgotten who and what she was. “Still we need to understand each other, you and I. To answer your question, I am familiar with thanatomancy because I have been an enemy of its practitioners. To hunt a beast you must learn all you can of its habits.”

Another interpretation occurred to Rik but he kept his mouth firmly shut. If you thought you might die of a disease one day, and there was one potential cure, you might well seek out the knowledge of it.

“You think my mother saw the sorcerer, and managed to escape unnoticed.” It seemed best to get the conversation back on safer ground.

“I think she went into hiding when an arrest was not made immediately. I suspect the sorcerer was an individual of some power and influence.”

“Why?”

“All the records pertaining to the case save the most basic have vanished. It is not uncommon for the documents concerning old cases to be lost or destroyed. It is uncommon for pages to be torn from the watch ledgers on the days in question.”

“It would be easy enough to have done in Sorrow, if you were rich enough.” Rik knew this for a fact. Charges could be dropped, men released from cells, pardons granted if the right palms were greased. The gang lord Antonio had done it, and he had heard tales of many others doing it. Once it had even been done for him. Poor Leon, he thought. “Someone was covering their trail.”

“And they did it very well. It’s cold now.” Sadness pressed down on Rik now. He had lost someone, and he had never even known her. His mother had tried to do right, and she had been killed as a consequence. Someone who could cover a trail like that could track someone like his mother down eventually. There were places where you could hide for months, even years, but sooner or later someone sufficiently determined would find you. He knew it. It was why he and Leon had joined the army and left Sorrow behind them.

“Did you find out anything?”

“The constable thought your mother had been involved with some sort of cult. That would fit. Such sorcerers are often members of cabals.”

Another thought occurred to him. “Did she ever mention my father?”

“No, Rik, but I have my own suspicions about that.”

“How? Have you worked some sorcery?”

“I have. I did it the first time I talked to you in the camp in the mountains. Do you remember that?”

“When you asked me about soldiers selling mystical books?”

“Yes.”

“And your spell told you who my father was? That is powerful magic.”

“It told me something about you; you have something that might have come as a gift from your father or your mother. I have ruled your mother out. She was human, and this thing could only have come from a Terrarch, and most likely only from one born on Al’Terra, our lost homeworld.”

“What thing?”

“There are certain divinations that can be performed to reveal people’s surface thoughts. They almost always work. Those spells do not reveal yours.”

“Spells can sometimes fail, or so I have heard.”

“Yes, they can. There are a number of natural phenomena that can cause spells to go awry, not to mention the fact that even the most skilled wizards makes mistakes. God knows I have made some myself. There are other tests we need to perform.”

“Are there?” he replied.

“Give me a lock of your hair.” Rik was suddenly wary. Locks of hair, nail clippings, splashes of blood were all things the Old Witch had collected back in Sorrow whenever she wanted to lay a curse on someone. She stared at him, and offered him a small knife. Something in her manner told him that she would not take no for an answer.

Reluctantly he took the knife and cut off a small length of hair. He handed it back to her along with the knife. She took it and passed her hand over it murmuring something in the ancient tongue. “I suspected as much,” she said eventually.

“Suspected what?” She took the hair, placed it a sealed package and then placed the package within one of her trunks.

“That it would not hold a trace.”

“I would appreciate it if you returned that lock to me, or destroyed it.”

“I need to test it with more elaborate spells, but rest assured it will be destroyed when it is no longer needed.” And that was that, he thought. He would need to see about recovering the lock himself some time.

She opened her hand and held something out to him. “Take this and hold it.”

He studied the thing warily and made no move to take it. He was very suspicious now and wondered where this was all leading.

“Take it,” she said. Her voice was laced with subtle compulsions. He felt a near overwhelming urge to obey, but he resisted.

“What is it?” he said. The words were difficult but he spoke them instead of doing what he was told. She smiled as if he had just proven something she suspected. He wondered if he had fallen into some sort of trap by not taking the stone. He wished that he knew more about what was happening here, about what was going on. He did not like this feeling of being someone else’s pawn at all.

“It is something I brought from the homeworld, a magestone. It is a simple thing really, used for testing children, to see how much magical potential they had. That was a thing far more common there than here, and far more useful. Take it. It won’t hurt you, I promise.”

He took it. It was a smooth, hard gem-like object, cool to the touch. He thought one surface had been scratched but when he inspected it, he saw that it had been etched with an Elder Sign, one he did not recognise. He felt oddly disappointed. He had expected it to shine or glow or respond in some way, and yet it remained totally inert. Asea nodded as if another suspicion had been confirmed.

“I know you have magical potential,” she said. “Yet the stone says no. The sign should glow when you hold it. Keep gripping it for a minute. Let us see if something happens.”

There was silence. Both of them looked at the stone. Rik felt as if it were a grenade with the fuse burning. If he had no magical potential, he could not become an apprentice. Was it possible Asea had made a mistake about that? Of course it was. She had said so herself.

Eventually, she gestured towards herself with the palm of her hand, indicating he should return the stone.

“You resist all forms of divination very well,” she said. “Shadowblood.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you never heard the expression?”

“No.”

“The old horror tales are no longer told?”

“Horror tales? What do you mean?”

“The Shadowblood were a dark legend on Al’Terra. They were the fist of the Desecrator, secret and deadly.”

Rik had heard of the Desecrator. Who had not? “The Prince of Shadow?”

“Perhaps the greatest of them.”

“You are saying there is some connection between he and I?” He glanced over his shoulder. It was like being told there was some connection between himself and the Shadow of God. The Princes of Shadow had been evil’s greatest champions. “That’s madness.”

“I would be happier if it was,” she said. There was fear in her voice and that made him more afraid, for she was one of the greatest sorcerers of the realm, perhaps the world. Anything that could make one of the First nervous was something of which he should be terrified. “But alas it is not. We had thought the Shadowblood gone from the world. Azaar believes he destroyed them all. It seems that my half-brother made a mistake.”

“I am not what you are talking about. I know nothing of these things.”

“I made other inquiries when I was in Sorrow. My agents went to some very dark places, and talked to some very desperate people. There was once a very successful thief in Sorrow, a very prince among burglars, they called the Halfbreed. He had a friend called Leon. They were said once to have been in Temple Orphanage together.”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”

“This half-breed stole from the mansions of the rich. Places protected by wards and all manner of mystical defences. Some of his victims hired diviners to hunt him down. The goods were sometimes found but he never was.”

Rik had not known that. It seemed that many of his escapes in Sorrow had been closer than he had ever suspected. “Most of those magicians are charlatans.”

“Some of them were not.”

“I don’t see that it proves anything.”

“No but the absence of something can provide corroboration as much as its presence. The Shadowblood were assassins, bred by magic, immune to scrying. They showed up on no tests save when they wanted to. They killed the Desecrator’s enemies in secret during his rise to power. They were perhaps the deadliest killers in a world that was not short of deadly killers.”

“I have told you I am not one of them.”

“One must have survived Azaar’s attack on their secret Temple, which is only logical. Some of them must have been performing missions when the attack came.”

“Temple?”

“In the Mountains of Madness. Azaar found it after a search of decades. There were those who believed it to be nothing more than a legend, but he was driven, for the Shadowblood killed his wife and children, and tried to kill him many times. For him, it was a war unto the death. Azaar has only ever lost one war, and that was unwinnable by anyone.

“I feared there had been survivors but for decades after the Temple was razed there were no attacks, and we allowed ourselves to believe we had won… then the End Times were on us and there were more important things to worry about.”

Rik did not know what to say. Asea seemed locked away in a world of her own, looking back into the past. He tried to sort through what she had said, and the explanation came. “You are saying my father was one of these Shadowbloods. That somehow he survived and he is here, in this world.”

“Precisely.”

“I cannot be held responsible for what my father might have done.”

Her laughter held no mirth. “Believe me you can. The Old Queen’s edict states quite clearly that all of the Shadowblood are to be killed as soon as they are found.”

He considered this. “That does not seem fair.”

“They were not fair times, Rik. The Shadowblood terrified many powerful people. They had strange gifts — it was said they could make themselves invisible, travel instantly through shadows, cloud the minds of those who saw them. They were too dangerous to be allowed to live.”

“But to kill someone just because they were born seems monstrous.” He was speaking only of his own case but as the words came out of his mouth, he realised they were true in all cases. He would have felt the same way even if he had no personal stake in the matter.

“A lot of monstrous deeds were done back then, Rik. The Dark Sun was rising. We did not understand who the enemy were or who was killing us. We only knew something had to be done, and I fear it made us as bad as our enemies- which was surely their intention.”

Rik had a sudden inkling of the murkiness of the past from Asea and the whole Terrarch race had emerged. Theirs had not been the world of light of which the Testaments spoke. It had been like this one, perhaps worse.

“Why are you telling me this- do you intend to kill me?”

“The Old Queen would have killed you. Others would kill you even now if they knew. Azaar, for one.”

“But you will not?” Another thing occurred to Rik now. He had no idea of knowing whether this was true, and no way of checking it. If this was a way of manipulating him, of keeping him dependent on her, it was a very good one. “Why?”

She sighed. The smile she gave him held an odd mixture of defiance and sadness and complicity and self-pity. “Because, like you, I do not believe anyone is born evil. I have made many mistakes in my life, Rik, sometimes catastrophic ones, and I have learned that doing things quickly for no reason other than fear has often led to the worst of them.”

“Are you sure you have no other reasons?” He could not keep the fear or the anger out of his voice. He felt an urge to lash out.

“There are other reasons, Rik. You have great gifts in you, and they need not be put to evil use.”

“You mean they can be put to your use.” She smiled.

“Just so. If your talents can be developed as I think they can, you could be a great asset to us in the coming war.”

“That’s comforting.”

“There’s no need to sound so sullen, boy. Such talents as I suspect you possess will gain you great riches and power in the long run, if you live.”

“You think it a good idea to have your own pet Shadowblood assassin,” he said. Already he was turning the possibilities over in his mind. If he could develop the talents she claimed the Shadowblood had, he could be an all but unstoppable thief.

“Not an assassin, perhaps, but an agent for myself, and the Queen.”

“Would the Queen know about what you just told me, about the Shadowblood?”

“For the moment, no one but you and I will know about it, and if you are wise you will mention this to no one. I am in no way exaggerating- should the Inquisition hear about this, it is a death sentence. And bear something else in mind, Rik; I value your life but I value my own more.”

Rik’s mind raced. He turned the options and the possibilities over in his mind. An agent of the Queen. A high road to riches. A death sentence hanging perpetually over his head. To be eternally in thrall to this ancient, beautiful and frightening woman. He felt as if he stood on the threshold of a world he had not even known existed, and which was reaching out now to entangle him.

“How can you train me? You are not a Shadowblood? Are you?”

“There are certain disciplines I can teach you, things that should bring out your latent powers eventually. And Karim knows many of the arts that are useful to someone like you. He will tutor you in them.”

“I am a soldier. How will I find the time?”

“I have had you and your friends assigned to my service as personal guards. It is work they seem admirably suited for. We will find the time to train you, never fear.”

“What if people find out what we are doing?”

“We shall just have to see that they do not.”

Another image entered his mind and he was not sure why- of the mother he had never known, who had died so horribly, quite possibly at the hands of his father. He felt an emptiness and a longing and a sense of loss so strong it was strange, because it was for something and someone he had never known.

Perhaps some day he would be in a position to do something about that. If he lived long enough.


Chapter Ten

<p>Chapter Ten</p>

The Foragers marched beneath the white banner of truce. It flew alongside the bat-winged angel on a black background that marked them as being part of the Seventh Infantry regiment. Sardec rode beside Lady Asea. She was the only person mounted aside from himself and it made him feel very conspicuous. There was no reason to be nervous, he told himself. Ilmarec would not harm an ambassador.

Sardec’s mouth was dry. Pain came from where his hand once had been. Before it had happened to him, he would never have believed a hook could hurt. There were times when he woke and thought he could still feel his fingers, that the loss of his hand had all been a dream. Of course, it was the phantom hand that was a dream. He had heard that sorcerers used mystical techniques to shape reality around them, imagining things so strongly they became true. He wondered if a sorcerer could imagine himself a severed hand so strongly that it became real. He mentioned it to Lady Asea. She seemed grateful for the distraction.

“On Al’Terra, I knew mages who could manipulate objects with hands they created by pure concentration. I doubt there is enough ambient magical energy to recreate that feat here.”

“What about growing new limbs? I had heard that was possible too.”

“With sufficient power you can stimulate the body in such a way that it repairs itself, like a Serpent Man growing a new tail.” Asea seemed sympathetic. She obviously understood his interest. She looked a little odd this morning as well.

Perhaps she had taken a new lover as camp gossip suggested. The half-breed had spent a long time in her tent last night. Sardec doubted they had been just talking. There was a time when he would have condemned her for it. He still felt the urge, but given his own actions with the girl Rena yesterday evening, he was in no position to throw stones. He felt a faint thrill at the memory of the previous night.

“That’s not an attractive image,” he said, wondering if he were talking about a hand growing like a Serpent Man’s tail or the picture of Asea and the half-breed writhing in passion that passed through his mind.

“There are less attractive ones,” she said. “Some sorcerers used to saw off the hands from the living and attach them to stumps of lost limbs.”

“It worked?”

“Sometimes. Sometimes the limb rotted. Sometimes the recipient died. No one was sure why. The practise never became popular for that reason.”

“My father claimed the Princes of Shadow took limbs from the dead.”

“He was right. Necromancers could reanimate them, and make them work, but there would be no sensation. They were like the limbs of lepers. Some of the Desecrator’s Lieutenants did that, and worse things.”

“You mean Moghrag and his armour of flesh?”

“Just so.” The infamous Moghrag had built a suit of armour from reanimated corpses turned inside out. The bones were fused on the outside to form an exo-skeleton, while clumps of necromantically-animated muscles on the inside amplified his strength. He was said to have been able to rip a man’s head from his shoulders with his bare hands.

Asea said; “Moghrag was always a sick one, even as a child. He was fond of dissecting things. I think he got that idea cutting up lizards and stitching them together.”

It was sometimes hard for Sardec to grasp that to one of the First, people like Moghrag were not simply the names of ogres from the Testaments, but living breathing individuals they had once had the acquaintance of. Asea had known Moghrag before the Exile, so had Azaar, so had Ilmarec for that matter.

“Azaar killed him, did he not?”

“He did. Azaar was First Blade of the Realm then. No one could match him with a sword, not even Moghrag with his strange armour and the stolen strength of a dozen warriors.”

Silence fell between them. When he had read the tales as a child, it was sometimes hard to understand why anyone would have sided with the Princes of Shadow, but there was a dark strain in the Terrarch psyche, and now he could imagine reasons.

He remembered the odd look in Rena's eyes when the cold metal of his hook had touched her naked flesh. He wanted to be whole again. He wanted to be handsome once more. He wanted to be able to think that women did not look at him with horror. There had been times when he had thought that dark sorcery might be the answer; it tempted him, particularly at night when he lay in bed alone with his thoughts. Under the sun, he could see it was madness. He had no desire to bear the stolen limb of another or to have the parts of an animated corpse grafted to his body. That was no solution to his problem.

“Could you work the healing magic?” he asked. The words just suddenly blurted out. They came from the deepest well of his being, and he had not expected to say them at all. Asea looked at him with something like pity on her face, and that was the worst part of it.

“In the right place, at the right time, possibly, yes,” she said. “On Al’Terra, where the flows of power were stable, strong and far more predictable than here it was difficult sorcery. Here on Gaeia, it would be even more complex.”

“Why is such sorcery difficult? You can summon demons from the Pit. Surely healing cannot be all that difficult in comparison.” She smiled as she might have done at a child who expected her to be able to reach up into the sky and pull down the sun.

“They are different types of magic,” she said. “Sometimes it is easier to do the big things than the little ones, just as it is easier to hack off a limb than to sew it on again so that it works. If you stimulate the body to repair itself you must do it exactly right. Otherwise it re-grows too much. Cancers come, or the limb becomes monstrous and malformed and useless, and you must amputate and begin the whole process again. That too is a risky procedure.”

“You do not make it sound easy.”

“No sorcery is ever easy. There is a cost for the sorcerer as well as the person ensorcelled. All magic puts enormous strain on the body and on the mind. Some think that this is why magic has so many ill effects on humans. They do not have the vitality or the mental capacity for it.”

Another thought occurred to Sardec. “Why can the Serpent Men re-grow limbs when we cannot?”

“I do not know. Their bodies are built differently from ours. They grow their entire lives, some of the Eldest are huge, almost the size of dragons. They are thousands of years old.”

“They must be an awesome sight.”

“They are. When I was in Xulander I visited several of the nest cities. Once I was shown into one of the sleeping chambers where the Eldest dream.”

“You never talked to one?”

“No- they are all asleep now. In hibernation I would guess.”

“Why?”

“Why do our own dragons spend most of their time asleep these days? It is a sign of the times, perhaps.”

“I have heard it said that the Serpent Men are cruel to their humans.”

“I have heard it said we are cruel to our humans.” She spoke in the High Tongue so the soldiers would not understand. He responded in kind.

“In the Dark Empire we are.”

“Some would say it’s not just in the Dark Empire.”

He shrugged not wanting to argue with her. He knew that politically they would never see eye to eye. She was too old and too radical. She had, after all, been a founder of the Scarlet faction.

“Do you think it’s true that the Serpent Men came from the stars?” he asked, to change the subject.

“So their Watcher Priests claim, and I see no reason to doubt them. It is said that many of the Elder Races did.”

“To cross the gulf between stars- that is a mighty sorcery.”

“To be sure, but no mightier than to cross between the worlds as our people did, when we came here.”

“Did they use gateways like we did?”

“You are in a curious mood this morning, Lieutenant Sardec.”

“I find it helps relax me when I may be riding into the teeth of Elder World weaponry. I fear I have the urge to learn something of the force that might destroy me.”

She laughed, a clear, ringing sound. “An admirable attitude but I think we are safe. I doubt Ilmarec will feel threatened enough by our force to unleash the horrors of the Ancients upon us.”

Sardec glanced back at the Foragers. They were a sadly depleted force. Perhaps thirty of the original company he had led into Achenar were present. The rest were either dead or recovering from their wounds. There were plenty of new faces, recruits posted from other companies to fill the roster. He hoped they had the skills of the men they were replacing. They were supposed to, but you never knew.

“My father fought in the sea battle at Ssaharoc. He said it was dreadful. The great towers guarding the harbour emitted beams of green light and our fleet just burned or exploded. Do you think Ilmarec has learned the secret of that light?”

“That seems as good a guess as any.”

“My father always said that if the Serpent Men could make the weapons on their Towers mobile, they could conquer the world.”

“Perhaps they can. Perhaps they simply have no desire for conquest. They are a strange people: alien and incomprehensible and I think to our mind very slothful. Perhaps they prefer inertia.”

“Then we had best hope that no one else learns their secrets.”

“All the Elder Races had mighty weapons, Lieutenant. They used them in their wars. That is why so much of the eastern half of this continent is devastated.”

A thought occurred to Sardec. “With such weapons we could have defeated the Princes of Shadow.”

“Perhaps, for a time.”

“You do not sound hopeful.”

“I think perhaps we could have defeated their armies, but the Princes themselves would have just done what they always did, and retreated into hiding until they had mastered the secrets themselves, and then they would have returned stronger than ever.”

“You do not think we will ever reclaim the Homeworld then?”

“It is a dream. Only a dream.” Sardec could not help but think that if they reclaimed Al’Terra, he might be able to regain his hand. He smiled sadly. It was a stupid petty reason to want to conquer a world, but he supposed such things had happened for lesser reasons.

The road passed over a ridge and suddenly, stunningly, Morven lay before them. Sardec barely noticed the walled townships on the islands in the river, or the sprawl of houses around the base of the great cliffs that rose above the river. He hardly saw the vast ruins that covered the land on one side of the tributary. What he noticed was the great stone spur rising above the town and the structure that perched atop it. Of course, he had seen the spire from a distance but the hills had blocked out the full view on their approach. This was the first time he had seen it in its entirety.

The tower was an immense structure, tall and thin, jutting a thousand feet into the air, tapering to a needle-sharp point at the tip. It glittered in the summer sun, reflecting the light greenly, for it appeared to have been carved entirely out of one titanic emerald. The sides were sleek and shiny. Here and there he could see small balconies and windows. Strange runes had been inscribed on its sides; they were of a lighter green and seemed to glow with inner light. Towards the tip were panels of the stuff, like vast stained glass windows.

The Tower was taller than any Terrarch structure he had ever seen, and gave off an aura of immeasurable age and strength. He knew those walls could resist dragonfire and sorcery; they could not be chipped with blades of truesilver. Seeing it for the first time he was brought face to face with the concept that there once had been mightier powers in this world than ever his own people had been. The sorcery that had created the Serpent Tower had been of an order greater than any his folk ever had access to, on this sorry world at least.

“It is beautiful, is it not?” said Asea.

“Aye, Lady. Lovely.”

“Strong beyond measure too.”

“Any fortress can be taken, Lady.”

“So Lord Azaar says but no one has taken the Tower since Ilmarec made it his own five centuries ago.”

“Who had it before him?”

“No one. It was shunned for centuries. They claimed a mad sorcerer lived there once, performing awful rituals. He was old before the Terrarch conquest. He ruled one of the old petty human kingdoms. His name was Lharquon.”

“What happened to him?”

“They say he was carried off by demons. It might well be true. Such creatures are always difficult to control.”

She should know, Sardec thought, for she had summoned a few in her time. It was strange to think of this serenely beautiful woman consorting with horrors from the Pit. At least by the light of day it was. He knew he would have no trouble believing it if he encountered her by night.

Sardec found his gaze glued to the tip of the Tower of Serpents. It glittered even more than the rest of the tower as if some great jewel caught the sun there. At any moment, he expected the green light his father had described to lick out and destroy them, but nothing happened. He raised his spyglass to his eye and studied the structure. There were people on the balconies, tiny at that distance, and robed. He wondered if one of them was Ilmarec.

The Foragers began the long descent of the ridge, following the road that led to the town. All around them were fields. Off to the east was an area of the ruins that looked burned and scorched. Large stones lay all around. Asea pointed to them. “Once there were huge Elder World buildings there. Now all that remains are those shattered fragments.”

“The green light?” Sardec asked.

“I am guessing so.”

As they entered the sprawl of houses, Rik felt as if he were coming home. He was a city boy at heart, and he never felt completely at ease in the countryside. Now with the tall crooked buildings rising around him, he felt more relaxed. There would be dangers here, but they were of a type he was prepared to deal with. The houses were not quite like the ones he knew. There was more stone than brick here, and the roof slates were a deeper, more brownish-red. But there were more similarities than differences. The buildings were still packed close together, and leaned towards each other like drunken men supporting each other after a big night out.

“A tavern,” said the Barbarian, pointing to a wooden sign swinging in the breeze above an open doorway. It showed a plump farmer dancing with a tankard in his hand and a serpent in the other. A crowd had gathered in the doorway to watch the soldiers riding by. As Rik watched, Sardec sent Corporal Toby to ask for directions. He knew from what Asea had told him last night they were heading for a mansion owned by a merchant. He had some business connection with her factors and her house. Toby returned and spoke to the Lieutenant. They headed on through the winding roads until they came to a bridge.

As toll money changed hands with the bridge-keeper, Rik studied their surroundings. Morven looked a prosperous place. It had three large Temples. Two had the plain spires of the New Faith, one was topped by a bronze angel. That would be where the followers of the Old Way worshipped.

He noticed that some of the new soldiers, the ones from Redtower, were pointing out the Old Way Temple. They imagined it the house of heretics and heathens, just as those who used it would imagine them to be. Like everything else, the faith had split in the great wars of the Schism. The New Faith was followed in the predominantly Scarlet nations like Talorea. The Old Way, which had never accepted the legitimacy of the Martyred Prophet, was followed by those aligned with the Dark Empire. The New Faith was said to be more open to humans, and more true to the spirit of the teachings of the Prophets, but if that was the case, he shuddered to think how repressive the Old Way was.

“You look as thoughtful as a fat man being offered a choice of pastries, Halfbreed,” said Weasel. “What are you thinking about?”

He lied from force of habit. “I am thinking at least we were not struck down by Elder World magic.”

“That’s what I like about you, Halfbreed. You always look on the bright side.”

“There’s no need to be so bloody sarcastic.”

Weasel merely smiled his annoying smile. “The Quartermaster gave us a special job. We’re to get in touch with the right people.” He made the peculiar wriggling motion of his fingers that let Rik know he was talking about the local underworld.

“Business as usual,” Rik said.

“If you’re not too busy with your new ladylove,” said Weasel

“Lucky bastard,” said the Barbarian. Rik said nothing to disabuse them of the notion that he was Asea’s fancy boy. It was a lot better than telling them the truth.

Why was it, he thought, that he always seemed to end up lying to his friends? He had not told them the real reason he had wanted Zarahel’s book back before Achenar. Now he could not tell them the real reason Asea was interested in him. He was destined always to walk apart even from the people who knew him best. He shrugged. What of it? He had always been set apart. His unknown father had seen to that.

They started to march again, passing over the cobbled bridge. It was a hundred strides long and lined with statues of saints and knights. As they came out from among the buildings he caught sight of the Serpent Tower again, looming above them like the spear of God. It was awesome. He had never imagined anything so large or so beautiful could exist. He saw no way any force on this earth could take it. It was just too old and too strong.

They crossed the bridge and entered another twisting, narrow cobbled street. Rik returned to his brooding. He had often wondered about his parents. He had often hated them and just as often fantasised about finding them, particularly his father. In his wildest and most unrealistic dreams he had thought about being acknowledged and taken in by some Terrarch clan. Now it seemed that even that was forbidden him. He came from bad blood. His father was a demon clad in flesh, and Asea believed some aspect of that had been passed on to him.

He wondered if it was true. The priests at the orphanage had always told him he was deep down bad, and perhaps they had been right. After he had escaped from their clutches he had done nothing but cheat and lie and steal and kill. He had done it to keep himself alive but he doubted the clergy would think that a satisfactory excuse.

Perhaps he had always been destined to turn out the way he had. Perhaps his destiny had been fixed before ever he was born, by the Terrarch who had sired him and the woman who had died. Perhaps it went deeper than that. Perhaps, as some of the preachers claimed, God had already decided who was damned and who was not. After all, if he was infinite and omniscient, surely he must have known how things were going to turn out when he created the universe. All life was part of his vast incomprehensible design.

Such thoughts made his head spin. What sort of god would create a universe in which people were damned before they first drew breath? It was the sort of logic that almost made you believe those that claimed that the Shadow had made the universe in defiance of God’s will. For himself, he was inclined to side with those who claimed that God had made the universe and then abandoned it as a botched job and left everybody to their own devices. That seemed to fit the facts better.

He shook his head. He took responsibility for his own actions. There was no sense in blaming any God, good or bad, for anything he had done. If ever he was called to account for those actions by God, he would ask him why he had created such a crazy, fucked-up universe in the first place.

“What are you frowning at, Halfbreed?” The Barbarian asked. “A man in your position should look happy. I would.”

He made an envious face, and then laughed. “I guess I will be drowning my sorrows elsewhere tonight.”

The streets had widened out into a square. In the centre was a statue of a tall Terrarch man in a military uniform. He was striking a heroic pose, sword in hand, leading an invisible army towards victory. Who was he, Rik wondered? In Sorrow he would have known the answer but this was some local hero or noble, and as such a stranger.

“Who are those bastards?” the Barbarian asked. Rik looked in the direction he indicated. A group of Terrarchs lounged against a street corner. They all wore long coats with silver buttons. They coats were coloured with a purple so deep and dark it was almost black. Their boots were high. Near them were squads of large, blond-haired men. All of them were big, with the brutal, brutalised faces of eastern peasants.

“Those, my friend, are part of the Legion of Exiles,” said Weasel.

“Khaldarus’s elite guard?” Rik asked. The Legion had an evil reputation. They were rogues and killers so bad they had been banished from the Dark Empire. Or so it was claimed. Others said they were a secret Dark Empire army in the service of Prince Khaldarus sent to infiltrate Kharadrea in a way that did not break the terms of the Treaty of Oslande. The refugees from the civil war had spoken of their cruelty and their efficiency.

“What the hell are they doing here?” asked the Barbarian.

An exceedingly tall, exceedingly thin Terrarch strode towards them. His skin was so pale he seemed almost albino. His long hair was so blond it could have been bleached. At his side hung a long sword in a black, rune-encrusted scabbard.

“Looks like we are just about to find out,” murmured Weasel.


Chapter Eleven

<p>Chapter Eleven</p>

“Lady Asea,” said the stranger, completely ignoring Sardec. “This is a pleasure.”

Asea responded with admirable calmness. “Lord Jaderac! I had not expected to meet you here. Particularly not in that uniform.”

If the barbed allusion affected Jaderac, he gave no sign of it. He was the very model of the eastern aristocrat: superbly arrogant, totally at ease, poised and charming. Sardec hated him immediately, the more so because Jaderac possessed many qualities he wished he had himself.

“I regret there was a misunderstanding back at the Queen-Empress’s court- an insult, a duel, a death, a scandal. You know how these things go. I was forced to take leave of civilisation for a while, and seek refuge in these exceedingly dull lands. Fortunately you are here to illuminate the place with your presence and so I can now count my exile a blessing rather than a misfortune.”

“May I present to you, Prince Sardec of House Harke,” said Asea, cutting through the flow of easy flattery.

“Charmed,” said Jaderac, executing an intricate formal bow. It should have looked effete and foppish, but it was performed with such gusto and precision that it was impressive instead.

Sardec inclined his head and kept his gaze fixed on Jaderac. The easterner met his eyes briefly then turned the full force of his charm back on the Lady Asea. “You are here to speak with Lord Ilmarec?”

“You presume correctly. I represent Lord Azaar. And you?”

“King Khaldarus sent me to demand the release of his sister. I fear Lord Ilmarec holds her against her will.”

“Khaldarus’s timing is astonishing. We only just learned of Lord Ilmarec’s decision, and yet you, it seems, have somehow contrived to be here before us although you came all the way from the East.”

“I was in these parts performing other duties. I have just received a messenger from King Khaldarus. He fears for his sister’s safety.”

“It is pleasant to see such fine family feeling,” said Asea. “The Prince’s concern is touching.”

“I can assure you that the King intends that no harm come to his beloved sister. I am here to ensure to it.”

“I doubt your force, formidable as it undoubtedly is, can storm the Tower of the Serpent.”

“I am sure no one intends to try such a foolish thing.” An airy wave of Jaderac’s hand took in their surroundings. “These kennels are not the place to discuss such matters. Can I ask permission to call upon you, and we can talk at our leisure?”

“Of course,” said Asea. “I look forward to the pleasure of your company.”

“And I yours, dear Lady. I will present my card this evening then. I presume you will be staying at the mansion of the merchant Fharog, the so called House of Three Swans.”

“I see you have done your usual thorough job of preparation, my Lord.”

“I wish it were so. It’s just that I too have taken a mansion here and your host informed my host of your coming. You know how humans love to talk.”

“And not just humans, it seems,” murmured Sardec. Jaderac gave him a cold glance, then his gaze went to Sardec’s hook. He made it quite plain what he was thinking. There was no honour to be gained in duelling with a maimed opponent. Sardec scratched the back of his left hand with his hook. Lord Jaderac clearly found the sight disturbing for he transferred his gaze back to Asea.

“Till this evening then, milady,” he said, all gallantry once more. He performed another superb bow and strode back to his companions. Sardec gave the sign for the Foragers to move onwards. He was very conscious of how shabby they looked compared to the easterner's superbly kitted-out humans.

Once again Asea appeared to read his thoughts. “I am sure they look fine drilling on a parade ground,” she said. “The men behind us can fight and they have proved it time and again.”

Sardec agreed with her, but he knew that the Legion could fight just as well. Their name was known and feared throughout the Ascalean continent. “Let us hope it does not come down to a contest of arms, milady. I fear we are outnumbered.”

The House of the Three Swans was a large manor in the Old Mercantilist style. It had been built to double as a warehouse and a fortress. The walls were thick, the external windows small, high and barred, and there was access only through one large gateway which now stood open, with the fur-robed master of the house standing fur hat in hand to bow them in.

Once inside, in the broad courtyard, things were different. Here were rain barrels and a well. Two sides of the courtyard held arch-covered walkways and wide windows on the second floor. The side directly facing the entranceway was a warehouse space. It had been cleared to give the Foragers a place to sleep. Fharog himself showed Sardec and Asea to their chambers. These were wide and spacious and furnished with the heavy solid furniture human merchants seemed to favour. Elder signs carved in varnished wood covered the whitewashed walls. The rooms were clean, the beds soft. There were writing desks, and pitchers of water, and everything needed for basic comforts. Asea pronounced herself satisfied with them, and Sardec could hardly disagree. Once the merchant had bowed himself out, Sardec went to make sure the soldiers were bedded down comfortably, and had everything needed for their welfare.

He told himself that it was nothing less than he would do for a horse, but he found himself concerned for their well-being, particularly for the veterans who had followed him through the hell of Achenar, and who had held the manor house at the ford. After a few words with Sergeant Hef and Corporal Toby that assured him everything was satisfactory, he assigned sentry shifts to the men. Twenty men were to be in the mansion at all times in case of trouble, the rest were to be allowed leave to scout out the city. They were told to keep their ears open particularly for rumours concerning Jaderac, Ilmarec and the Exiles. Duty done, he headed back into the mansion and knocked at the door of Lady Asea.

“Come in, Lieutenant,” she said. He wondered how she knew it was him. Had she set wards or did she merely recognise his footfall or knock?

Asea sat at a table, sanding a letter to fix the ink in place. Even as he watched she folded it and sealed it with her signet. “I have placed sentries to make sure of your security. If you wish to go out, please inform me. If I am not available please talk to Sergeant Hef. He will see you are provided with a suitable escort.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant. Won’t you sit?” He accepted gratefully. She smiled at him.

“I have been watching you, Lieutenant. You have changed since our time in the mountains.”

He tapped his hook with the fingers of his left hand. “Yes, I have.”

“That is not what I meant. I would say you have grown. I see you treat the men differently and they respond differently to you.”

He shrugged. There was no sense in denying it.

“You speak less too.”

“I am sorry if I lack the polish and wit of Lord Jaderac.”

“You are worth a dozen of him,” she said. The compliment took him off guard.

“Thank you. I thought you rather liked him.”

“He is witty and charming. He is also cold and deadly, one of those who regards killing as a sport. Duelling is something of a hobby with him. He is very good with his blade.”

“I will be sure to challenge him with pistols then.” She appeared to consider this.

“That would be wise, should things ever come to that. I doubt he practises much with them. His sort spurns all the new weapons. They are demeaning, un-aristocratic.”

There had been a time when Sardec would have whole-heartedly agreed, but at this moment, a pistol was the only weapon he could use with even a modicum of skill.

“You think it will come to that,” Sardec asked.

“It might. We do not know why Jaderac is here.”

“I suspect he told us the truth, Lady Asea. I have no doubt that Prince Khaldarus would like very much to get his hands upon his sister, or, failing that, to have her killed.”

“That is part of it now, I am sure. The question is what was he doing here before this crisis arose? I suspect Jaderac is here to stir up trouble in other ways. He is rich and he is one of the Queen-Empress’s many lovers. He often acts as her special envoy. He is just the individual to cause problems for us here- particularly among the landowners who have Purple sympathies.”

“You think he may have been behind Lord Esteril’s attack on us?”

“I would say it’s certainly possible.”

“It would not be a bad thing if an accident occurred to him then.”

“He probably thinks the same about us, Lieutenant. There is something else of which you should be aware.”

“Yes?”

“Lord Jaderac is a sorcerer of considerable power and somewhat sinister reputation.”

“Sinister reputation, milady?”

“There are rumours among that he dabbles in necromancy and other darker sorceries.”

“I will inform the troops, Lady Asea. I shall see all of them are wearing their elder signs.”

“I will take all steps to see that the mansion is protected. Inform the men that there will be wards placed in each corner of the building. They are not to disturb them.”

“It shall be done. May I ask what your plans are for the moment?”

“I will dispatch a messenger to Lord Ilmarec, and see if he will see us. Tonight I intend to dine with Lord Jaderac. I would be grateful if you would attend me.”

“Of course.”

“Then I will see you later. Now, if you will excuse me I have some tasks to perform.”

“I have given the men assigned to be my direct bodyguard leave to see the town,” she said. “They are gathering information on my behalf.”

Knowing those three they were most likely causing trouble and getting drunk. Sardec decided to keep that information to himself.

Rik strode through the streets of Morven, drinking in the feel of a new place. It was something he had come to love. In the first fifteen years of his life he had never strayed far from the streets of the poor quarters of Sorrow. He had possessed no idea of what a pleasure simply being in new surroundings could bring. He found they stimulated the eye and the brain. It did not matter to him whether the changes were small or large, they acted on him like a drug.

The girls here favoured braiding their hair, and many of them used carved wooden clasps to keep it in place. Their features were different from those he was used to; the hair more honey coloured, the noses slightly flatter, the lips thicker, the mouths wider. Many of them had eyes of startling blue. Their dresses were longer and marked with an intricate cross pattern that was local. A serpent motif seemed very common. Everyone was either barefoot or wore clogs save for the richest of merchants. They wore short robes whose hems would not drag in the omnipresent mud.

He noticed other things. The town was not so populous or so prosperous as it had first appeared. Many of the windows were boarded up, many of the doors too. In some places tiled roofs had collapsed, and entire tenements emitted a fusty, unlived in smell. There were the usual beggar swarms and many traders but not much of anybody else. It looked like a lot of people had left town. Given the tales of what Lord Ilmarec was up to, he supposed it was hardly surprising.

As the street reached the river, he noticed there were many bridges and hundreds of small boats. There were barges too, for transporting goods up and down the Mor. Most of them were harnessed to huge river wyrms. They splashed through the river like massive ships, sending ripples of waves behind them as they towed the enormous cargo vessels. The creatures were well trained, ducking their long, snakelike necks as they passed through the arches of the bridges.

“We’ll be heading downriver on those soon, I reckon,” said Weasel. He paused to light his pipe. He used a spill of wood, and a food vendor's brazier and he bought a sausage and some bread in return for the service.

“You think?” asked the Barbarian.

“Use that chunk of meat you call a brain,” said Weasel. “It’s the fastest way into the centre of the country, certainly the quickest way of moving supplies and reinforcements. That river is a wet road leading all the way to Halim, the capital, and then all the way down to the sea at Harven.”

The Barbarian considered this. “Never liked that place.”

“What place?” Rik asked.

“Harven. Passed through it when I first came from the Northlands. Lots of strange temples to the Sea Gods. Elder World demons in the water too. The Quan they were called. Strange things they were, half-man, half-squid. You could see them in the harbour sometimes. They say there is an underwater city full of them just out in the Gulf of Harven. I believe it. There were lights down there as our freighter came in. Sailors kept making elder signs, talked all the time about the Shipbreaker. Some huge demon that'd pull a galleon to the bottom. Take down a dragon in a gulp.” He paused and looked up at the Tower. Its tip vanished into the gathering clouds. Rik guessed there would be rain soon.

“I’m not very keen on Elder World demons,” the Barbarian said eventually.

“Who is?” Rik asked.

“I’m not very keen on those who consort with them either. I don’t know how these people can stand to live in the shadow of that thing. Bloody Serpent Men.”

“Hasn’t been a Serpent Man up there since the start of the New Age,” said Weasel.

“What was that bloody light we saw in the woods then?” the Barbarian asked.

The vendor looked at them. His face paled. It made his massive bushy black moustache look all the more prominent. “You say you saw a light in the woods?” he said.

The Barbarian nodded. “Aye, what of it?”

“Where?” the vendor said. His accent was so thick Rik had to concentrate to understand him.

“Near an abandoned mansion house near a ford, about six leagues south west of here.”

“Out near the old abandoned Abelen Manor?”

“Yes, maybe,” said Weasel. He looked at the man. “What’s so strange about seeing a light out there?”

“The place is haunted. Foresters saw ghosts in the woods near there. Ghosts from the Elder days. Some say they saw them up by the broken towers where the master used the green light too.”

Rik passed the man some money for a sausage. He seemed keen to talk now, and scared. “You say Lord Ilmarec has been using green light.”

“Aye- he’s only doing so to protect his holdings now that civil war has come, but I agree with your big Northern friend there. I don’t hold with Elder World sorcery. It does no good meddling with such things. No good at all.”

“I’m sure Lord Ilmarec knows better than us,” said Weasel.

The vendor touched the wooden elder sign on his breast, then moved his fingers to inscribe its outline on the air. “You’re probably right, sir. You’re probably right but some very strange things has been happening of late and the ghosts of the elder snakes is not the least of it.”

“No?” said Weasel, leading the man on.

“Lock yourself up after dark,” said the trader. He spoke the words with the hint of satisfaction that some people get from imparting bad news.

“Why?”

“People are going missing.”

“Certainly looks that way,” said Rik. “I saw a lot of empty houses as we walked down here.”

The vendor laughed nervously. “Those houses most likely belong to people who left town when Lord Ilmarec started calling on the green light and the runes on the Tower side started to glow. Lot of folk were afraid of it, and the coming war, so they headed out into the country.”

“You said people were going missing though,” said Rik.

“They are. Men walk out of a tavern at night and are never seen again. Never make it to their home or business.”

“Maybe they fell in the river,” said Weasel reasonably. “Man gets drunk, gets to thinking how hard life is, sometimes dark water can be very appealing.”

“A lot of folk have suddenly found life very trying then,” said the vendor. “And some of them seemed happy enough with their lives. Young Pavel’s wife just bore their first baby and he was pleased as punch.”

“What do you think is happening then?” asked Rik.

“Don’t know,” he said, “but it started after those easterners arrived a week or so ago.”

“Did it now? You reckon they are up to some mischief.”

“It would not surprise me,” said the vendor. “Slavery most likely. Easterners use humans as slaves on their estates.”

Rik thought of the superb Lord Jaderac. It was hard to picture such a Terrarch having a sideline in kidnapping drunks from a tavern as part of the slave trade. Maybe this was all just a story. Kharadrean humans did not like the Sardeans and with good reason. They lived in fear of their giant neighbour spreading its rule to their own land for a very long time.

“They might be using them for dark sorcery,” said Weasel with a wink to Rik that the vendor was in no position to see. It would not do any harm to start blackening Jaderac’s reputation, Rik supposed.

“I would not put it past them,” said the vendor with a shudder. “You said you saw a ghost in the woods,” he said, obviously wanting to change the subject.

“We saw one,” said the Barbarian. “Glowing in the dark it was.”

“You saw one? For sure? Up close?”

“Close as we two are now,” said the Barbarian exaggerating somewhat. He proceeded into a meandering version of their encounter that seemingly held the vendor enthralled. Rik knew that a new chapter would be added to the local tales of the Serpent Men before this day was out.

He gave his attention to the small ships on the river. They were of all kinds from small taxi boats poled by their owners, to sailboats belonging to merchants. It was the massive river wyrms that fascinated him. They towed rafts even in the deepest parts of the flow, their bodies half out of the water, and their long serpentine necks towering almost the height of a house. Rik had heard that these wyrms were the largest of their kind, and needed the water to help support their huge weight. Seeing them he believed it.

Massive as they were though, the Tower made them look small. Its cold shadow covered the town, hinting at the presence of Elder horrors within. Rik told himself it was just his imagination, but he could not help but feel intimidated by the sheer size and scale of the alien structure.

The Barbarian finished his boasting as a fine drizzle began to fall.

“Time for beer,” said Weasel. “Time to get out of this rain.”

“I’ll drink to that,” said the Barbarian. “Although in the northlands we would not call this rain.”

“What would you call it?” said Rik.

“Light summer mist.”

As soon as they came through the Inn’s door, Rik felt as if they were making a mistake. The place was crowded, and it had been the noise that attracted them, but now that he was inside, he could see that a couple of tables were crowded by blond haired men in black uniforms. All of them had the cropped hair, flat noses and high cheekbones he had come to associate with easterners. He looked at Weasel who looked at the Barbarian who shrugged. “I fancy a beer and no ten of these blue-nosed bastards is going to stop me having one,” he said.

Under the circumstances, Rik could not back out and leave his friends, much as he would have liked to. Besides, the bouncers looked big and efficient. There were three of them visible, and one of them had a leather wrapped cosh in his hands. Perhaps things would not come to blows, he thought. He took one look at the Barbarian and he thought, and perhaps pigs will grow wings and fly.

Weasel grinned confidently at the locals, and got them seats at a table. Half a dozen young apprentice lads were already there. Weasel ordered drinks for the whole lot of them, a transparent ploy to the get the townsmen on their side if trouble broke out. Within minutes he and the apprentices were chatting away like old friends, while the Barbarian met the menacing glares from the Easterner’s table with ones of his own.

It was Rik’s first beer in a long time and he took it slowly, savouring the taste and feel of the bubbles on his tongue. The Barbarian leaned forward, pointed a sausage-sized finger at him, licked some froth from his walrus moustache and asked; “So what’s it like, shagging one of the Elder Race?”

Rik looked at him. Was it possible the big man was really jealous? That might prove a dangerous thing if it were the case. He considered for a moment, and said; “None of your business.”

The Barbarian laughed. “Fair enough. Got to hand it to you though, Halfbreed. It did not take you long to get over little Rena. Probably just as well now that she’s moved in with the Lieutenant.”

Rik felt as if someone had just twisted a knife in his gut. “I don’t give a toss,” he lied. “Anyway, I’m not certain she has moved in with him.”

“No- she’s just a few tents away so if old Hookhand fancies a quickie he can nip across. Must have nerves of steel that girl. I don’t fancy doing it with someone with a hook. I shagged a bar-girl in Harven once who had a wooden leg. That was an interesting experience.”

“You might have got woodworm,” said Rik.

“Dangerous when your head's made of oak,” said Weasel.

“Ha-bloody-ha. She was a nice girl, actually. I felt sorry for her.”

“How did she lose the leg?”

“Wyrmbite. Worked for a merchant and one day one of his river wyrms just felt peckish. She was fired.”

“Worse things happen at sea,” said Rik. He did not want to think about all the people whose bad luck he had seen back in Sorrow. It inevitably brought his thoughts back to Rena, who had lost her family in the last plague outbreak.

“You’re a cold bastard sometimes, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. “Although you’re right- worse things do happen at sea. I remember when…”

A shadow fell across the table. Rik looked up to see a massive easterner standing there. He was almost as big as the Barbarian and it looked like his nose had been broken and badly set several times. He had a cauliflower ear and his eyes had the puffy quality that bare-knuckle boxers sometimes got.

“You want something?” said the Barbarian. “A knuckle sandwich maybe?”

“I want to propose a toast,” said the Easterner, obviously drunk. “To the Queen-Empress. May she live a thousand years.”

“Well, you’ve done that now,” said the Barbarian. “Maybe you should run back to your friends before they miss you.”

“You will not drink her majesty's health?”

“Certainly,” said Rik. “To Queen Arielle, rightful ruler of the Terrarchy. May she live a thousand years.”

He raised his stein, and then tossed its contents into the Easterner’s face. The Barbarian whacked him in the testicles with his closed fist. As the easterner crumpled, Rik brought his stein down on his head.

“A waste of good beer that,” said the Barbarian, as he picked the fallen man up bodily, lumbered across the room and tossed him at his mates. With a whoop Weasel and the apprentices rose and joined the fight.

The Barbarian hefted a bench, and used it to belabour some of the Easterners. Not a bad idea, Rik thought, picking up another stein to use as a weapon, and wading into the fray. In a moment all was a chaos of blood and beer and broken teeth. Ahead of him he saw a black-clad man. He ducked and lashed out with a kick, catching the man on the shin. While his foe was distracted, he smacked him with the stein. The Easterner went down as if pole-axed.

Rik glanced around and saw that the Sardeans were withdrawing, carrying their unconscious friend's with them as they made a fighting retreat. He helped pick up the man he had just downed, and along with one of the apprentices carried him to the door and threw him out into the mud.

A moment later there was a rousing cry of victory. The Purples were defeated. The Scarlets and the Kharadreans victorious. The Barbarian raised both hands above his head in a prize-fighters gesture of triumph.

“Time for some serious drinking,” said Weasel.

“Let’s hope the bastards don’t return with reinforcements,” said Rik.

“Have a beer,” said the Barbarian. One of the apprentices grabbed Rik by the shoulder and said; “Talorean, Kharadrean, we are brothers, yes?”

“I’ll drink to that,” said Rik. A long evening of boozing stretched ahead of them.


Chapter Twelve

<p>Chapter Twelve</p>

Fharog’s footman announced the presence of Lord Jaderac and Lady Tamara. His master had trained him well. He ushered the pair into the dining room quite as well as any of Sardec’s family retainers. Sardec rose to greet the visitors as they entered. Jaderac was dressed in a new spotless purple-black uniform with silvered epaulettes. His companion wore a blue formal dress that made her look quite stunning.

The Lady Tamara was tall and slender. Her hair was thick, blonde and lustrous, piled high on top of her head to reveal her pointed ears. Several elder signs set in blue fire-jewels glittered on her throat. There were more of them set on rings on her fingers. It seemed that like Jaderac she was a sorcerer, or liked to pretend she was.

Sardec thought he was being unfair- doubtless she was what she seemed to be. The folk of the East spent a lot of time studying the old arts, which was easier for them than it was for westerners because they had held on to most of the old libraries of arcane lore during the Schism. In its way, it was a reminder of exactly what the Taloreans would face in the coming war, and he wondered if that was the point.

Lady Asea walked forward to meet them. She was clad in a gown of silver metallic from the Old World that was a very definite reminder of exactly who she was. Her only visible sorcerous adjunct was a set of protective runes that glittered on her truesilver necklace.

Sardec stepped forward behind her, suddenly conscious of feeling shabby in his uniform jacket. Lady Tamara looked up at him flirtatiously. He noticed her lips were full and sensual. Her eyes gazed into his measuringly for a moment before she looked away. He and Jaderac exchanged bows and thus began the slow minuet of formalities that would lead them to the table.

The food was good and for the early part of the meal, as was polite, they kept strictly to the expected questions and topics of conversation. It turned out that Lady Tamara was the daughter of Lord Malkior, the former Chancellor of Sardea.

“You are very far from court, milady,” said Sardec. “What brings you to these rough climes?”

“I wanted to see this part of the world, and Lord Jaderac graciously consented to be my guide. In this and many other things.” She gazed adoringly at Jaderac, a thing that did not sit well with her earlier flirtatiousness. He wondered what was really between the pair. Briefly his eyes made contact with Lady Asea’s, and he saw that she too had noticed the gesture and its falseness. Sardec had met many Terrarch girls like Tamara before- seemingly empty headed, flirtatious, constantly in search of new conquests. Once he would have been interested, if only to spite Jaderac, but now she held no real interest for him, and he wondered at how he had changed. He thought of Rena. There was his answer. His pleasures were of a different kind.

“The Tower is one of the wonders of this world,” said Asea. The subtle emphasis on the word this reminded them all that she was the only one present who had gazed on the wonders of another world.

“Indeed,” said Jaderac. “Although I doubt its treasures can compare with those of the Queen-Empress’s palace.”

“I think the Lady Asea referred to the structure itself,” said Sardec lightly, wondering at the urge he felt to bait this dangerous duellist. “Even a Terrarch of the Old Faith must admit that the Elder Races surpassed us in some things.”

Jaderac smiled as if at the mouthings of a child. “I never suggested otherwise.”

“Have you been inside the Tower yet, Prince Sardec?” said Tamara, putting the stress on his title.

“No, milady,” said Sardec. “Although I hope to have that privilege soon.”

“But you have Lady Asea,” said Jaderac. “You were often Ilmarec’s guest in the old days. Perhaps you can satisfy my little angel’s curiosity.”

“I have seen parts of it,” said Asea. “Although there were areas that Ilmarec never invited me to, or anyone else, as far as I can tell. And there were sealed areas that not even he could gain access to.”

“I believe Lord Ilmarec has solved their mysteries and opened those ways now,” said Jaderac.

“That is indeed news,” said Asea. “He tried for centuries to penetrate their mysteries and failed.”

“There is a lesson to us all there,” said Jaderac. “Patience rewards those who have it.”

“They say Lord Ilmarec is somewhat eccentric,” said Tamara.

“You could say that,” said Asea. “He is a brilliant scholar of the Elder World, and of the Serpent Folk in particular. His monograph on the Vanished Towers is a classic of its kind.”

“The Vanished Towers?” Sardec asked.

“There are several other sites in Kharadrea where Serpent Man Towers stood, according to ancient legend. Now there are only vast craters. One is a lake. Two others could be mistaken for the mouths of volcanoes. They are all places saturated with dangerous magical energies.”

“Where are the Towers then?”

“No one knows. They are gone although there are many tokens of the Elder Races presence in the vicinity: carved rocks, tools, cave villages, huge ruins.”

“Perhaps the Towers were never there,” Tamara suggested.

“Records from the pre-Terrarch period indicate otherwise.”

“Can old records be trusted?”

“According to Ilmarec they can.”

“What became of the Towers then? I thought they were indestructible. Lord Jaderac has often pointed out to me that the Serpent Tower can be harmed by no known weapon or sorcery.” There was a note of challenge in Tamara’s voice, as if she did not quite believe Asea, or wanted to question her sorcerous wisdom.

“No one truly knows. Lord Ilmarec speculated that they might have been destroyed in some sorcerous ritual or by some potent Elder World weapon. What the ancients’ sorcery could create, it could surely destroy.”

“That stands to reason,” said Jaderac. “And now it would seem Lord Ilmarec has turned his brilliant mind in the direction of destruction as well.”

“You refer to the green light,” said Sardec.

“Yes, Lieutenant, I do.”

And there it was, thought Sardec, another reason why this pair were here. If Ilmarec has access to the ancient weapons of the Serpent Folk he could dictate the course of this war, and practically name his own price from either side. With them he could do more than hold Morven town, he could alter the balance of power in the Terrarch lands.

“I wonder if Lord Ilmarec really has learned the secret of the ancients,” Asea said.

“I have reason to believe he has,” said Jaderac. “Many of the locals witnessed the destruction of Princess Kathea’s army.”

“Humans can be such liars,” said Tamara.

“It was not only humans,” said Jaderac.

“My father always suspected Ilmarec had sinister reasons for taking up residence in that creepy old Tower,” said Tamara.

“And how is your dear father?” asked Asea.

“Lord Malkior is very well.”

“I have not seen him in oh — it must be twenty years. Not since he led the last embassy to the Amber Palace.”

“I think it pains him still that he could not negotiate a settlement between the two halves of our shattered empire.”

“No one can now,” said Asea. “No one ever could. Not since the split between Scarlet and Purple began. The differences are too great.”

Sardec was not sure of that. There were plenty of Terrarchs in Talorea, his father included, who would happily see the Terrarchy reunited. But of course they also wanted to see the empire ruled by Queen Arielle so perhaps Asea was right. “Still, your father made a great effort.”

“Thank you. I am sure he will appreciate the fact that you said that.”

“Please pass on my regards to him when next you see him.”

“I will be sure to do so.”

“I have always regretted that the Queen-Empress replaced him with Lord Xephan as Chancellor. Xephan seems so much more… aggressive.”

“Xephan follows the Old Ways very strictly,” said Tamara. “He wishes to see the Empire united once more.”

“With him as Chancellor, of course,” said Jaderac sardonically. It was evident he had no liking for the Terrarch they were talking about.

The servants brought in the main course, of river fowl in dreamberry sauce. It was very good.

Lady Tamara looked over the table and said, “You must have seen a lot of action, Lieutenant.”

“You mean to have lost my hand,” he said, deciding not to let the unspoken part of her statement hang in the air. Jaderac winced at his crassness. Tamara met his gaze without embarrassment.

“Yes.”

“Enough.”

“There are already tales doing the rounds about how you held off Lord Esteril at the old Abelen house. He quite sang your praises when we dined with him the other evening. He said you were a true son of your father.”

So there had been contact between Esteril and this pair. Sardec wondered whether it pre-dated Esteril's attack. He was tempted to ask but instead said; “He is too kind. I merely did my duty.”

“There are other stories,” said Jaderac. “About how you lost your hand in combat with an Elder World demon. Perhaps you would care to tell us about that.”

“I am surprised such tales have made it across the border,” said Sardec.

Jaderac’s smile was cold. “I make it my business to keep track of such things. I understand the Lady Asea was with you. Please tell us the whole story. It’s been a long time since one of the First rode to battle with the spawn of Uran Ultar. Surely that is a tale worth the telling. They say you killed the Prophet Zarahel yourself, is that true?”

There was a goading note in Jaderac’s voice, and Sardec wondered at how well informed the Easterner was. Of course, given his position, Jaderac most probably had his own intelligence network in this part of the world, and in Talorea as well.

“One of my men killed him.”

“The half-breed?” Jaderac’s gaze switched to Lady Asea now. Unconcernedly she forked some of the bird into her mouth, and then dabbed her lips with a napkin.

“Exactly so.”

“If you will forgive me for saying so, it’s a sad day for the Talorean army when its heroes are half-breeds.”

The tone was deliberately provocative even if the words were not. Sardec wondered whether Jaderac was merely arrogant and prejudiced or whether he really wanted a duel. Asea smiled at him calmly. Sardec recalled that it was not so long ago that he would have agreed with Jaderac. Now he found himself being forced to defend the half-breed. Truly the world was strange.

“The man is a brave soldier,” he said. “His deeds won commendation from Lord Azaar himself.”

“On my estate half-breed children are exposed on the mountainsides.”

Sardec smiled just as coldly as Jaderac. “So there are half-breeds on your estates, Lord Jaderac? I can see you come from a family with strong appetites.”

Tamara coughed. Lady Asea covered her mouth with her hand.

“What exactly are you implying, Prince?” Jaderac was using his title now. Such formality was usually a precursor to a challenge.

There was silence among them for a moment. The summer rain tapped lightly on the windows.

“Someone must be breeding such children- or are you implying that your neighbours are sneaking onto your estates and abusing your thralls? I have heard such things happen in the East.” Sardec kept his tone light and lazy.

“You have heard incorrectly.”

“Then it is members of your house that you must blame, I fear.” Sardec was now being deliberately obtuse.

“I think this is rather an indelicate subject,” said Tamara.

“Please forgive me then, Lady Tamara. I apologise for my boorishness.”

Seeing Jaderac’s look Sardec felt like he had just had a close escape from a duel. He wondered why Lady Tamara had thrown him the rescue line. If their mission here had been to provoke a fight she had just defeated the purpose of it.

“I understand some of your men claim to have encountered a Serpent Man in the woods,” said Tamara. “Is this true?”

This pair seemed extraordinarily well informed. He wondered which of his men has been gossiping. Perhaps he should issue a warning against that.

“It seems unlikely,” said Asea. “Perhaps they are telling tales inspired by the old stories. Soldiers can be a very superstitious lot.”

“Perhaps they are less superstitious than you believe, milady. This is not the first tale of such I have heard since coming here. If you listen to some of the locals, Serpent Men or their ghosts stalk the streets by night, carrying off babies and killing late night strollers.”

“I doubt Serpent Men would do such things,” said Asea. “They are carnivores but they do not like the taste of human flesh. Just more tales, most likely.”

“Or perhaps Lord Ilmarec has used the necromantic arts to conjure up the shades of the Elder Race.”

“If I did not know better, my Lord, I would say you were trying to frighten me.”

“What has one of the First to fear from mere ghosts, Lady Asea?” said Jaderac gallantly. “I am merely seeking your opinion as an acknowledged expert on the supernatural.”

“We both know that ghosts usually only appear at places of power. Sometimes the death of a powerful sorcerer will imprint his presence on the aura of the place where he fell but such events are rare. The death has to be particularly traumatic.”

“The Serpent Men are known to be powerful sorcerers.”

“I think if their ghosts were going to appear they would have done so before now, Lord Jaderac. They have had several millennia to do so and no one seems to have spotted them in those long centuries.”

“Not unless their spirits were disturbed by something. Or they are guardians or harbingers.”

“You are suggesting that Lord Ilmarec may have unleashed something that was best left undisturbed.”

“Precisely. We do not know what guardians the Serpent Men may have left behind to protect their secrets.”

Asea looked thoughtful for a moment. “You may be right,” she said. “But these are gloomy thoughts. Surely there must be something lighter we can talk of?”

“I fear all conversational avenues lead in distressing directions,” said Jaderac. “However I will do my best. Have you heard what befell Lord Belezar in Askander?”

He went on to tell a long droll incident concerning a famous old rake in the Eastern capital and how he was bilked of a small fortune by scheming sorcerers who claimed to have the secret of transforming lead into gold. Sardec had to admit the story was well told. Asea followed it with a similar tale set at the Amber Palace, and for a short while it felt like a normal Terrarch gathering, full of amiably spiteful gossip and sardonic wit. Under the influence of the wine he found it was almost possible to forget that Jaderac and Tamara were enemies.

Sardec noticed that Asea was looking at the windows. When he looked closer he could see why. A thin green glow leaked into the room through the gap in the curtains.

“What is it, milady?” he asked. Asea frowned.

“Lieutenant, I would be obliged if you would open the curtains.”

Sardec rose to obey. He opened first the curtains and then the shutters. As he did so a baleful green glow filled the room, dimming the light of the glowgems into insignificance. He looked up at the Tower of the Serpent. It glistened greenly in the rain, the tower top vanishing into the low clouds. Where it pierced them, the clouds were saturated with green light, like a lantern glow seen through mist, although on a far larger scale.

“It seems Lord Ilmarec is engaging in more experiments,” said Lady Asea. “Has this happened before?”

Even Jaderac seemed abashed. “No. Not since we arrived and not before unless I miss my guess?”

Silence slowly filled the room. The rest of the meal was subdued. All the Terrarchs present seemed lost in their own thoughts. Sardec would have bet gold that they were all thinking about the same thing. The presence of that titanic Elder World structure above them made them all seem like insects. Its brooding presence filled the night with hints of awesome, unspeakable power.

His way illuminated by the eerie greenish glow, Rik staggered past the night sentry and through the postern gate just in time to see the Easterners and their escort assemble in the courtyard. Lord Jaderac had turned to say goodnight in the most flowery way possible to Lady Asea. Beside him, garbed in a hooded nightcloak, was a tall slender Terrarch woman. At that exact moment, she turned her head and looked in Rik’s direction. Their gazes met and he felt a faint thrill, almost of recognition, although he was certain he had never seen her before. Then the Lady looked away and made a curtsey to Lady Asea.

Rik felt the Barbarian’s massive hand descend on his shoulder and drag him into the shadows on the far side of the courtyard.

“Don’t spoil His Nibs big exit or it will go worse for us,” he said. “You know what their Lordships are like about such stuff. Bastard’s probably run you down if you stand there. Why you looking so thunderstruck anyway, we can’t have drunk that much. Not more than fifteen or twenty beers.”

Rik watched as the gates were opened and the Easterners coach thundered through and vanished into the night. He felt a strange sense of emptiness once it was gone. He knew that something important had happened here, but he could not for the life of him put his finger on what.

“That went better than I thought,” said Sardec. He lounged comfortably on his chair in the dining room. He felt somewhat less than sober but he did not care. At that moment, even the Lady Asea looked less than intimidating. She smiled coldly, and he realised suddenly that she was not drunk. For most of the evening she had drank from her water glass. He wondered if the others had done the same, and if he had made a fool of himself. He suddenly felt very young and very gauche.

“They are quite a pair,” she said. “What did you think of them?”

“I am much too well bred to possibly comment on two such august Terrarchs,” said Sardec. Yes, indeed, he was drunk.

“I am sure you are well-bred but I would still appreciate your opinion nonetheless.”

“Then I shall give you it, dear Lady,” he said in his best impression of Lord Jaderac’s manner. “I think he is an arrogant popinjay, and she is the spoiled daughter of a great magnate.”

“I suspect that is exactly what they want us to think.”

“You disagree?”

“I’m afraid I do. There is something about Lady Tamara I mislike greatly. She acted a part this evening, although I am not entirely sure why.”

“Acted a part?”

“I think so and you do too, Prince Sardec. She is something more than she seems.”

“You think her father sent here to negotiate with Ilmarec.”

“It would certainly make sense for them to do so. But how could he have known so far in advance… By all accounts Prince Ilmarec only revealed his power a few weeks ago. It would take them at least a month to get here from Sardea.”

“You think they were dispatched on other business then?”

“I rather think I do. I think their presence here at this moment might be an accident although an unfortunate one, should they be able to sway Lord Ilmarec to their side. With those weapons and Queen Kathea in their grasp, the war for Kharadrea would be all but won.

“Then it falls to us to see that does not happen.”

“Yes, it does.”

Sardec gestured in the direction of the Serpent Tower. The green light still streamed in through the window. “What do you think Lord Ilmarec is up to, milady?”

“Nothing good,” she replied thoughtfully. “Nothing good at all.”


Chapter Thirteen

<p>Chapter Thirteen</p>

Rik was not surprised to find himself summoned to Lady Asea’s chambers the next day. Karim came for him as he prepared for his duties. Rik wondered what the Southerner did when he was not about Asea’s business. He could not remember seeing him about. Perhaps she kept him in a box.

Asea looked up as he entered the chamber. She was dressed in a formal day-gown and she had a book open in her lap. When he came in she dismissed her maids and Karim, and erected a privacy spell.

“I trust you have recovered from the excesses of last night,” she said. He did not bother to ask how she knew. Servants gossiped even more than soldiers.

“I am, thank you.” Rik wanted to ask her about her visitors but he could not think of any way to do so delicately. “Is there something you wish to discuss with me, milady?”

“There are many things- perhaps you can begin by telling me what occurred on your excursion yesterday.” He did, leaving out nothing, for he was certain she would know if he did anyway.

“What do you think is happening here?” Rik asked. “I saw those green lights in the sky last night.”

“I suspect Lord Ilmarec has unleashed something from the Elder World but I am not entirely certain what. Take a look out the window. Tell me what you see on the road leading up the cliff side.”

“Lord Ilmarec seems to be preparing for a long siege. There is a train of provision carts heading up into the Tower.”

“He is getting ready for a siege. Who does he expect to fight if he has access to these oh-so-potent Elder World weapons? He can destroy any force that attacks him.” Asea’s face reminded him of the priests back at Temple orphanage asking questions during catechism. He felt sure he was supposed to give her clever answers.

“Perhaps there are limits to what the weapon can do. Or perhaps he expects it to burn out after a few uses.”

“A good point.”

“Are there any spells that can protect against such weapons?” Rik asked.

“I would have to study it in detail to know for certain. It would not do to try a general counter-spell without some assurance of it working. Lord Manesi’s wizards have already made the folly of that quite clear. The green light can destroy an army.”

“When will you teach me some magic? Does your offer of apprenticeship still stand?” Rik spoke his mind, amazed by his own temerity and found that he resented that amazement. He wanted to be able to talk to Asea as an equal, to not be intimidated by her, but he realised that was impossible. She was one of the First. She would always be daunting.

“I will teach you when the time is right, but now is not the time. There are other things that demand attention. Did you see our guests last night?”

Rik thought of the beautiful young Terrarch woman, and the tall officer she was with. “I did.”

“Mark them well.”

“Why?”

“You may have to kill them.”

“You speak very casually of murder, milady.” The words came to his lips unbidden. He was surprised to find himself reprimanding her.

“I assure you I do not, Rik. If those two get what I fear they have come for, our entire campaign in Kharadrea will collapse.”

He waited in silence. After a few heartbeats she added. “The Dark Empire will have a new rich province, right on our borders. They could bring their armies in by land or by sea. I don’t think you would find living under the likes of Lord Jaderac very congenial, Rik.”

“Would you?” he asked. He found yet again that he feared her but could not help provoking her. She studied him as if considering punishing him for his insolence.

“No, I would not,” she said eventually. “I do not like the Purples. I do not like their policies. I do not like the form of slavery they practise on your people.

“But, perhaps more to the point, the Queen-Empress does not like me. I fear I would swiftly find my lands confiscated and my head on the block if she were to assume rulership of Talorea, as would Azaar and all the others who helped put Queen Arielle on her throne.”

She sounded utterly sincere, but then she would. “From all I have heard I do not think I would like to live under the Queen-Empress either,” Rik said. “Why do you really want them killed?”

“I did not say I want them killed. I said it might become necessary.”

“And you think I am the man for the job.”

“I am certain you are.”

“Because of my blood?”

“Because you can slip through wards, Rik. Because you can be made invisible to sorcery. Because you have a knowledge of locks and breaking and entering. Because you are clever and resourceful and cold of heart. Because you are a trained killer. Like it or not, the army has made you one. Because you can do it and if I set you this task I am sure you will.”

Rik thought of the girl he had seen last night, the strange emotion he had felt when he first saw her. “What if I don’t want to kill her?”

“The Lady Tamara, Rik? Don’t let her pretty face fool you. She comes from an old Purple line. She wants to overthrow the Scarlet realms and all they stand for.”

“You want to overthrow theirs. Do you think that makes you worthy of being marked for death?”

“I am marked for death, Rik. I am quite sure that given the chance Lord Jaderac or Lady Tamara would see me dead. The Queen-Empress would thank them most handsomely for arranging it.”

“When will you decide if you want them killed?”

“After I have spoken with Lord Ilmarec. After I have found out what progress they have made of convincing him to side with them.”

“How would you have me do it?”

“I told you I believe you will find a way. I will leave the matter in your hands.”

Of course, thought Rik, that way the matter would be completely deniable if he was caught. It seemed that he was being used. “And what will my reward be if I am successful?”

“You will not find me ungrateful, Rik. But before you get carried away with your demands you should remember something. You and your friends sold forbidden books to an enemy of the Realm back in Redtower. That is treason. And treason is a capital crime. What you did merits the attention of the Inquisition and a very slow and painful death.”

Of course, the Inquisition would believe that accusation coming from her. Perhaps she even had proof. Rik felt the jaws of the trap closing on him. Whatever happened he would have to do what Asea wanted. He would need to take whatever risks she asked, and do the tasks she appointed him to do.

“I am sorry, Rik,” she said. “I truly am, but there are things necessity drives me to do.”

“I am more familiar with that than you could possibly believe, milady.”

“I believe you,” she said. “We will talk of this further when the time comes”

From her manner it was clear he was dismissed.

Rik entered the courtyard and saw Sergeant Hef was waiting for him. “I trust her Ladyship had no special duties for you to perform this fine day?”

“None,” said Rik. Was the Sergeant giving him a disapproving look? It was hard to tell.

“Good, then you are rotated onto sentry duty. Take your turn at the gate. If her Ladyship needs your services I will see you are informed.”

Rik moved quickly to obey. Normally he found sentry duty too tedious for words, but today he had a lot to think about and this would ensure his thoughts were not disturbed.

He took up his position facing the Barbarian and studied the street with a wary eye for a minute or two. There were no obvious threats he could see. Just some children playing pitch and toss for coppers in the gutters, and a few food vendors selling sausages and sweetmeats. A couple of hopeful whores who had heard of the soldiers within loitered hopefully nearby, making their presence known so that assignations might be made later.

He was not so much amazed by the fact that Asea had judged him to be an assassin at heart, as by the fact that she had judged him so well. He had killed men before, in the heat of combat, on battlefields and in the back alleys of Sorrow. He had killed men when his own life was at stake as it had been back in Bertragh’s warehouse in Redtower. He had never simply killed strangers in cold blood for reward but he felt certain that he could do so if the need arose.

Now Asea was asking him to kill Terrarchs. The part of him that had been brought up to revere the Elder Race was appalled. A more rebellious part of him felt a sick thrill. He might actually be called upon to kill the masters of the world, the ones who had oppressed him and made his life miserable for so long. The same breed as his father…

That thought brought him face to face with a thought he did not particularly like. What if this whole business was just another test, carried out by Asea to see if her theory about his background was correct. He would not put it past her to do such a thing. He shook his head- it made perfect sense that she really did want Jaderac and Tamara dead.

He felt as if a wide abyss yawned in the paving stones at his feet. He had been sucked into the secret intrigues of the Terrarchs, into their conspiracies and quiet killings. He was in a sense an insider now, and that too was oddly thrilling to a boy who had spent his whole life on the outside of things. It was strange to think that to passers-by he was just a young soldier on sentry duty, but soon he might be called upon to stalk and kill some of the highest nobles in the land.

Get a grip, he told himself. This was not one of the cheap storybooks he liked to read, this was his life. He was not some secret agent bent on desperate duties in the Queen’s service. He was being asked to murder powerful people in cold blood for payment. He was not entirely sure what the fee would be; there was not even any certainty that Asea would keep her side of the bargain. Perhaps he would be sent to kill Jaderac and Tamara, and she would then denounce him as a madman. Such assassinations had happened in the past. No one would take his word against hers. He could be a one shot weapon, like a cheap pistol, used and then discarded.

But if what Asea said was true, he was too valuable. A killer who could bypass any ward undetected would be too useful to just throw away. Unless, of course, she was telling him these things to egg him on, to motivate him, to make him think he was invincible when in fact he would be caught and killed after the attempt.

His whole world had changed during the course of their conversation. He had found out something about himself that he had only half-suspected before, a hidden depth that horrified and frightened him. The Temple Preachers who had lectured him as a child would have had their every suspicion confirmed if they could have looked inside his head right now. They had always claimed he was naturally wicked and would come to a bad end. Before he died all of Master Pternius’s worst predictions might well be fulfilled.

Let them be. He did not care.

“Fancy a stroll round the city then?” said Weasel.

Guard duty was over. The relief was already at the gate. Rik was tired but not that tired. It would soon be night and he was in a strange town and that fed the restlessness that had been growing in him all day.

“Why not?” Rik said.

“Why not indeed,” said the Barbarian.

“Let’s not forget we’ve got some chores for the Quartermaster. I asked around today, seems the likeliest place is a tavern called The Snake’s Head. It’s down along the waterfront, near where we were yesterday.”

“Bad time of the night for that part of town,” said Rik. “What with people going missing and all.”

“You’re not saying you’re scared, are you, Halfbreed?” said the Barbarian.

“I’m just saying we should make sure our pistols are loaded and our knives are close at hand.”

The Barbarian said; “Mine usually are. It’s not my fault if you can’t keep your powder dry since you started hanging around with the Great Lady. I’m surprised you are not heading up there tonight. Or does she call the shots?”

“You want to go to the Snake’s Head or not?”

“I’m in,” said Weasel.

“Me too,” said the Barbarian.

“Then let’s get our stuff and go.”

The Snake’s Head was everything Rik had expected it to be and a little bit less. The ceiling was low. The clientele were rough as a thirsty dog’s tongue. The smoke of pipeweed, dreamweed and a dozen other narcotics filled the place. The lowest sort of bargirls, faces splashed with rouge and whitened with powder to cover their pox marks, stared at them when they came in. The Barbarian rubbed his hands together and chuckled with glee.

“My kind of place,” he said. “Time to get the beers in.”

He shouldered his way through the crowd, ignoring the glares of the hard-looking men he pushed aside. Most of them merely stared. The Barbarian was the tallest man in the room by a head, and massive with it; not the sort of person anybody wanted trouble with.

Rik and Weasel took a table in an alcove and Rik studied the place carefully. It was a classic thieves dive if ever he had seen one. Furtive men with covered packages came in, said something to the barman and then headed into the back. Doubtless there was a fence through there. Sometimes he caught sight of a man as big as the Barbarian, when the curtains were swept aside.

The Barbarian returned with three beers and tumblers full of a strong-smelling spirit. Rik shook his head and indicated the Barbarian should take the spirit. Now was not the time for getting drunk. “Looks like your informant was right, I would say. What you want to do about it?”

“I think I’ll go have a word with the man in the back room,” Weasel said.

“Want us to come with you?” Rik asked.

“No, don’t want to scare him off with the sight of your ugly faces. Stay here, and come running if I whistle. You’ll know if there’s trouble.”

“Right-o,” said the Barbarian, downing the spirit in one.

Rik wondered at this. Was it possible that Weasel did not want them to hear what he had to say to the local thieves? Or was it that he just did not want to make the locals nervous? He could play it any way he wanted as far as Rik was concerned.

A slim youth entered. He was garbed in a black tunic, with a slouch hat pulled across his eyes. He had a long knife on his hip and a pistol thrust into his belt and he walked with the strutting confidence of a city-bred bravo. Rik felt a strange flicker of recognition, and then something like an electric shock when their gazes met. He knew this person, although at first he was not certain from where. Then slowly the impossibility of what he was seeing settled on his mind.

“You look like you just saw a ghost, Halfbreed?” said the Barbarian. There was faint mockery in his voice. “That strutting cockerel there scare you?”

Rik shook his head. He was not quite sure that he wanted to tell the big man that Lady Tamara, daughter of the former Chancellor of Sardea liked to hang out in riverside taverns dressed as a man. “No, I just know him. Wait here, I’m going to have a word.”

“Just leave me on my bloody own then,” said the Barbarian.

“Drink my beer.”

“As you command, sir.”

Rik tapped the black-clad youth on the shoulder. She turned swift as a snake. Cold eyes glittered beneath the brim of the hat.

“I think you and I should talk,” Rik said.

This close he could see it really was Tamara. The Terrarch noblewoman was very well disguised. It looked as if wads of something had been placed inside her cheeks to puff them out and make them look more human and makeup had been applied to the corner of the eyes to alter their shape, the same with the lips. Dirt smeared her face in a way that no Terrarch would ever allow it to. Her hair and her hat covered her ears. There was something else too, something he could not quite put his finger on, but which he suspected was magic.

“Very well,” the voice was low and sounded human. It had a Kharadrean accent. “Do I know you from somewhere?”

“I think we met very briefly the other night.” Rik was absolutely certain that she would remember him and recognise him, just as he had recognised her.

“There are private rooms upstairs.”

Words passed between Tamara and the bartender, she grabbed a bottle and two goblets and then they both headed upstairs. The private room was more like a private cupboard. It had a table and a couple of rickety chairs and a door that could be wedged closed. A small single bed took up most of the rest of the space. Tamara took a spill, lit it from one of the lanterns and then lit the candle set on a chipped plate on the table. Her expression was one of amusement. She did not seem at all frightened at being alone in a room in a rough part of town with a strange man.

She poured a drink. Rik watched her hands carefully, he was certain she added nothing to it. That did not mean the wine could not have been doctored though. It might have happened downstairs. She saw him watching her and raised the goblet to her lips and drank. He considered switching goblets with her and decided that might be a little too melodramatic. He doubted anyone would have the foresight to doctor the cups. He drank the wine. It was surprisingly good.

“I saw you at Lady Asea’s mansion the other night,” he said, once they were both seated. Their stools were very close together. Their legs touched. “I am surprised to see you here.”

“And I am surprised that you recognised me in the dim light, in these clothes, with this makeup and wrapped by these spells.”

“Your secret is safe with me.”

“I was wondering about that.” She passed a hand across her face. An odd rippling, distorting effect followed her hand as she made the gesture and her features became the ones he had seen the previous evening. She was, like all Terrarch women, ravishingly beautiful and there was something else about her, a sense of interest in him personally, of availability. It was written in her smile.

“Do you think this is the sort of place that a Terrarch woman should come on her own?”

“I assure you I am more safe here than you are.”

“I must admit I am curious. Why exactly are you here?”

“You think I am one of those High Born who comes to the low parts of town in search of sexual adventure?” Rik had known of Terrarch women who did exactly that in Sorrow, Terrarch men as well. The way her hand now rested on his thigh seemed to confirm the impression.

“The thought had crossed my mind.”

“Are you offering your services?” She reached out and adjusted a lock of his hair with her hands. He pulled away, feeling a slight sting. Had she pulled out some of his hair? He looked but her hands were empty. It occurred to Rik that if Lady Asea really wanted Tamara dead, he was never going to get a better opportunity than now. Under these circumstances, though, he just could not do it. For whatever reason he found he actually rather liked her, and he was certainly intrigued.

“I wasn’t but…”

“It’s an interesting proposition. I must confess I noticed you the other night as we were departing and I thought; who is that handsome young man…” She had backed away now as if to put some distance between them. He considered what would happen if he attacked her. All she had to do was reveal who she was and he would be in terrible trouble and she was armed. Some instinct warned him that she was much more formidable than she looked.

“You thought more than that.”

“Really? Is mind reading among your many accomplishments then?”

“No but I felt something when I saw you.”

“How very romantic.”

“It was not anything romantic. I merely felt a sense of recognition. I suspect you did to.”

“You might be right. Now, why do you think that was?”

“I wish I knew,” said Rik honestly. “But I don’t. I have never seen you before last night. Why are you here?”

“I am here because like your friend, the Weasel, I have business with Black Tomar, the proprietor of this delightful establishment.”

“He is the local Bossman then, is he?”

“If by that picturesque expression you mean he is the town’s chief dealer in stolen goods, illicit information and illegal services then you are correct. It did not take you long to find him. I must say I am impressed.”

“Why do you want to see him?”

“I think I have answered quite enough of your questions. It’s time you answered some of mine.” He answered her smile. She leaned closer. Their faces were almost touching. Her eyes were very large. The pupils very dark and dilated. He felt like he might fall into them and be lost.

“Ask away.”

“Are you Lady Asea’s lover- everybody seems to think you are?”

He nodded. There did not seem to be any point in denying it. It was a cover that needed to be kept.

“How did that happen?” He decided then to be as honest as possible. It was always best to keep as close to the truth as you could when telling a lie.

“I saved her life in Deep Achenar. She took an interest in me after that.”

“You were in Deep Achenar with Asea? You are the one who fought the Spawn of the Spider God?” He nodded again. It seemed word of the Foragers’ mission had not been as well hushed up as he thought.

“What were they like? Describethem to me.”

He told her of the bizarre half-spider, half-demon things he had battled with, and the ritual he had witnessed. She was a very good listener. She nodded agreement every now and again, and her eyes never left his face.

“Extraordinary,” she said eventually. “And that is how your Lieutenant Sardec lost his hand.”

Rik could not deny the Lieutenant’s bravery no matter how much he disliked the Terrarch personally.

“I believe you are very lucky to be alive,” she said. She looked a little awestruck. Rik wondered how much of it was play-acting but he was flattered nonetheless. Her hand still rested on his thigh, massaging it gently.

“You’ll get no arguments from me. Now why are you here?”

“I am collecting information,” she said.

“Don’t you have servants for that?”

“I like to collect it myself, that way I can judge the source first hand.”

“That’s a very dangerous hobby.”

“I find it adds spice to an otherwise dull life.”

She did not give the impression of being one of those bored Terrarch noblewomen who sought relief from their ennui in danger; quite the opposite. She reminded Rik of some very successful thieves he had known, who took pleasure in their accomplishments and found the crime as thrilling as the reward.

“How dull can it be, being rich and powerful and beautiful?”

“You would be surprised,” she said. “A palace can feel like a prison sometimes.”

“I’ve been in prison so I doubt that.”

“You seem to have led a very eventful life.”

“Too eventful.”

“Tell me- I am interested. Why were you imprisoned?”

“I was caught in possession of stolen goods. I was drunk at the time. My friend Leon had left them with me to pick up later and the watch came. I was too drunk to run away so they caught me. I had not even stolen the goods but I was going to hang for the theft anyway.”

“How did you get away?”

“Leon bribed the guards. They let me out.”

“No daring escapes, no night flights across the tiled rooftops at midnight? That’s very disappointing.”

“That is the way things go in Sorrow. If you can afford the bribes, you can get off free. If you can’t, it’s the long drop. So why did you come here?”

“The same reason as I am sure you did. I want what Black Tomar has; information, among other things.” Rik did not rise to the bait.

“You are spying?”

“If you want to put it that way. I am sure you are doing the same for the Arch-traitress.”

“Lady Asea would not be thrilled to hear herself described as that.”

“Nonetheless, that is what she is.” Tamara sounded suddenly very serious. “She and Azaar tore the Terrarchy apart to satisfy their personal ambitions. They plunged the Empire into civil war because they could not stand to see Arachne on the throne. They wanted somebody more malleable and Queen Arielle proved to be that, at least in the beginning.”

“That is not the history I was taught.”

“Naturally- considering which side of the border you were born on.” Rik paused to mull over her words. She was a Purple. But that did not prevent her from believing she was right or even being so. He wanted to hear her side of the story.

“Go on,” he said. “I am listening.”

“Arachne was the eldest of the heirs. She was first in line to the throne legally. In the normal course of things there is no disputing that she would become Queen-Empress.”

“In the normal course of things, but she assassinated her own mother.”

“I assure you she did not.”

“You have proof of that? Why has it not been brought forward?”

“Of course, I don’t have proof but I do know the Queen-Empress and I know she is utterly serious about finding the murderer of her mother.”

“It would certainly be in her interest to claim that.”

“I know her, Rik. She has been a friend to my family for a very long time. She is sincere. She believes your patron to have been responsible.”

Rik found himself staring at her. “That is just a black lie put about to discredit Asea.”

“Is it? Who was in charge of palace security when the Old Queen was murdered? Lord Azaar. Who was the sorcerer responsible for overseeing the palace’s defensive wards? Lady Asea. Was there ever any trace of a murderer found? Did any of the other palace wizards detect any disturbance of their wards? The palace was sealed that night. No one went in or out. The only people who could have committed the crime were inside that wing of the palace. Arachne was not. Azaar and Asea were, so was your Queen for that matter. That is why my father had her placed under house arrest until he could get to the bottom of the matter. Azaar and his half-sister released her from her chambers and fled before the matter could come to trial. I ask you, whose interests seem best served by that chain of events? Who had the motive and the opportunity to commit the assassination?”

“Motive?”

“Arielle wanted to be Empress. She knew that her sister would become so in the natural course of things. Asea and Azaar could see their power slipping. The Old Queen was turning against them, and their Scarlet doctrines.”

Rik was in no position to judge the truth of her claims. This was the first time he had ever heard events framed exactly this way, although hundreds of theories circulated among the citizens of Sorrow about the assassination that had sparked the bloodiest civil war in history. “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I like you, and I want you to know in whose shadow you are standing. Lady Asea is a heroine in your country. Lord Azaar is a famous General, but they are both traitors to their own people, and they are both murderers. They will be brought to justice. In part that is what this war is about.”

“Wars are fought for land, for gold, for power. They are not fought for justice. Believe me, I have fought in enough of them…”

“I am not saying that those motives don’t arise on either side. I am saying that there are other motives mixed in with them. The Queen-Empress will see the traitors brought to justice. She would reward those who would aid her in this.”

Rik fought down the urge to laugh. Earlier Asea had suggested to him that he would have to kill this woman. Now the intended victim seemed to be suggesting that he help her to kill Asea. Obviously this was the reason for their sudden intimacy.

“How much would she be willing to pay?” he asked.

“A very great deal. I can imagine that there would be titles and honours and riches for the man who brought her the killer of her mother.”

“I did not think the Dark Empire believed in rewarding humans.”

“Sardea rewards those who serve her. And you are only half-human. There are procedures that could see such a one as you formally adopted into a clan. There would be palaces, gold, lands.”

“We are talking hypothetically, of course.”

“The Empress’s generosity would be very real.”

“I think I understand why you wanted to talk to me.” She looked as if she were about to slap him, but then she smiled.

“You could do very well for yourself, Rik. Anyone who helps us in this could.”

“As would you, I take it.”

“I make no secret that I would gain a great deal of prestige, and so would my father. It would help him at court. There are factions vying for the Empress’s attention. He has his rivals.”

Rik found that he was smiling. The situation had more possibilities in it than he had first imagined. He felt old ambitions stir, the urge to be someone, to put his bastard heritage behind him, to find a place in the world. It appeared he was being offered more than one route into his future although this one involved treachery to one who had helped him.

“You have given me a great deal to think about,” he said.

“Think about it very carefully. We will talk on this, and other matters again.”

He could have laughed aloud, so closely did her words and manner ape echo that of Lady Asea. She rose and made her way from the room, never taking her eyes from him.

What was he going to tell Lady Asea about this, Rik wondered. Part of him thought it might be better to tell her nothing.

Jaderac looked around his chambers in disgust. They were so primitive it made him want to be sick. He loathed being so far from civilisation. He loathed being so far from the Queen-Empress when he had so many rivals for her favour. But duty was duty, he told himself, and if he was successful here he was sure to find himself back in Arachne’s good graces despite all of Lord Chancellor Xephan’s efforts to discredit him with her.

Damned Xephan had hated Jaderac ever since the Brotherhood had split and he had taken Malkior’s side in the power struggle instead of Xephan’s. What else could he have done? He and Xephan were of the same generation and only one of them could take Malkior’s place as head of the Brotherhood when the old Terrarch’s time came. If the rumours he had heard were true, Xephan had already succeeded in assuming control of the great conspiracy as well as replacing Malkior in Arachne’s affections. The thought made Jaderac deeply uneasy.

He did not want to stay here and he could not sleep so he took himself down to the laboratories he had built in the basement. His nose wrinkled at the stench of rotting flesh and pungent alchemicals coming from the equipment. The whimpering of the humans strapped to the tables disturbed him a little even now.

He watched the blood drain from the tubes in their arms. Red pulses drained in time to the beat of the great sorcerous engine. All of it flowed towards the huge sarcophagus in the centre of the room, feeding his creation, giving it the life it needed. The Black Elder Signs inscribed on its side glowed with unholy power. The making of that great coffin and the thing within it had cost Jaderac a great deal, but he was certain that sometime soon it would prove worth it. The most potent sorcerous assassin ever created would be his to command in a few days. All he had to do was find a way to aim it at the correct target. A few days ago he had been certain that target was going to be Lord Ilmarec, but now another even better target had presented itself, one he had never dreamed would become available so quickly: the Lady Asea.

Some of the humans had soiled themselves. One youth was dead, drained of all he could give. Jaderac pulled out the needle tipped tubing from his heart and arms and rolled him onto the floor. Hopefully the body-snatchers would bring a new one tonight. According to the grimoires, he had already fed the Nerghul enough blood, but in Jaderac’s long experience it was better to be safe than sorry.

It came to him suddenly that someone was watching him. The hairs on the back of his head rose. He turned to look at a young Terrarch woman disguised as a man. How long had she been there, Jaderac wondered.

“Oh, do sit down,” said Tamara. “You’re pacing like a caged leopard. I find it quite enervating just looking at you.”

Jaderac gave her one of his coolest smiles. He studied her, puzzled as always by her manners. Her enigmatic father was his closest ally at court and she shared Malkior's intelligence and his breeding, but there were some distinctly unusual things about her. He found them all disturbing.

There was her habit of slipping away at odd times of night, and the way she gave even the best of his watchdogs the slip. He worried about her. If anything should happen to her while she was here, it might cause a rift with her father, and that was the last thing he could afford at the moment. He needed Malkior’s aid against the Lord Chancellor and his clique within the Brotherhood. Xephan had proven himself a mighty sorcerer and a master of intrigue. Jaderac needed powerful allies against such a dangerous foe and Malkior was the most formidable of all those available. He was determined to win back his old position at the Queen-Empress’s court and maintain control of the Brotherhood. Malkior would prove very useful to Jaderac as he schemed to do so, so long as no harm befell his darling daughter.

There was going to be war, and war meant spoils. The Empire was going to expand. New territories would be annexed, whole cities plundered. Jaderac had no use for land and wealth for their own sake, but they were important markers of status, tokens of success in the game that all Terrarchs played.

“Where were you the tonight?” he asked.

“I was talking to the young man your agents told you about.”

Jaderac controlled his anger. “You went out on your own again?”

“It’s so damnably boring being cooped up in this mansion.”

“So you decided to head for the lowest part of town?”

“Why Lord Jaderac, I do believe you have been spying on me.”

“I am merely concerned for your safety. I do wish you would not set out on these nocturnal adventures. Surely you can find something to amuse you within these walls.”

“Are you offering your own services, my Lord?”

“We are alone,” he said. “There is no need to keep up the pretence of being the lovesick convent girl. I know quite well in which direction your tastes run.”

Tamara looked amused. “Do you, my Lord? It hurts to think I am so transparent.”

She was about as far from transparent as it was possible to get, quite the most baffling female he had ever encountered. He had considered using his sorcery to keep track of her but that would be an unconscionable distraction at this point, particularly with Lady Asea in the vicinity. He realised that somehow she had managed to change the subject on him again.

“If he is her lover he could have killed you. Her lovers have been assassins before.”

“I think I managed to take his mind off killing me at least for tonight.” No need to ask how she had done that.

“What did you find out?” he asked, to change the subject.

“I am certain he is Lady Asea’s lover.”

“We already knew that. He spends part of each evening in her tent or her chambers. At least she is discrete enough to kick him out before morning.”

“I also have something you might want.” She held out her narrow hand. A single silvery hair lay in it.

“Perhaps I am a little obtuse, but why exactly should I want that.”

“We have not been able to get anything connected with Lady Asea: no hair, no blood, no nail clippings, not even any item of old apparel.”

“Of course we have not. She is too skilled a sorceress ever to let those fall into enemy hands.”

“But we have got something connected with him.”

Jaderac allowed himself a small smile. He was starting to see where this was going. “Go on.”

“Our agent in the house can signal when he visits her. We simply send the monster you are creating to kill him and instruct it to kill anyone that’s with him.”

Jaderac turned the idea over and over in his mind. Providing they unleashed his creation at the correct hour it would work. Asea would be with her lover and her mind would surely not be focused on defence at that hour and under those circumstances. His pet would need only seconds to accomplish both their deaths.

“Give me that,” he said, taking the hair and putting it gingerly into a glass preservative jar. He spoke the words of sealing as soon as the stopper was in place. In its way this was a precious thing, a spoor to pass before the great hunting beast he would soon unleash. “I believe you have got it. The Queen-Empress will reward us both mightily for encompassing Asea’s death.”

Tamara’s smile answered his, and then for a second she frowned. “A pity about that young man,” she said. “I rather liked him. He was quite ruthless and amoral but I liked him.”

You liked him because he reminded you of yourself, Jaderac thought, but kept the thought to himself. He was excited by the plan she had outlined. In only a few more days, the greatest enemy of the Empress would be dead, and he would feted for it. And Tamara, of course, for the small part she had played in it.

“If you will excuse me, I have work to do,” he said, moving closer to the great sarcophagus and starting to croon slow, deadly spells in the old tongue of the Terrarchs.


Chapter Fourteen

<p>Chapter Fourteen</p>

Sardec woke from another dream of the dark spaces where the Spider God lurked. He reached for his face with his hand, and was once again surprised when the cold metal of his hook touched his cheek. The dreams were getting stranger. He had seen visions of Serpent Men and Ultari doing battle under a green tinged sky. The great tower flashed beams of devastating emerald light while huge insect winged spawn of Uran Ultar swirled around it. He had watched nightmarish combat in a time before any Terrarch had walked this land, fought with all the ferocity of the Elder Ages.

He wondered if he should talk to Asea about the dreams. Perhaps some mystical connection had been established between him and the Spider God in Deep Achenar. Or perhaps he was sensitive to the oppressive presence of that massive Serpent Man artefact out there. Or it might just be his own imagination. The battle in that lost city deep below the surface of Gaeia had been enough to give anyone nightmares.

He rose from the bed, and threw open the windows. In the courtyard, men sprawled around the well, cleaning their weapons, patching their clothes, gossiping and chatting. Servants came and went through the open doors, bringing food and washing. A peddler sold pies from a basket. Sergeant Hef chatted with Corporal Toby in the early morning sun. It all looked normal and reassuring and not at all like his apocalyptic dreams.

He called for a servant to help him dress. So far no word had come from the Tower as to whether Ilmarec would see them. The old wizard liked to make things dramatic. Lord Azaar must be fuming with impatience. The Tower bestraddled the Mor; his main line of attack into central Kharadrea had been cut off. He could always march along the Serpent Road that wound through the hills but that would take far longer than the river.

Sardec wondered how things were going with the Queen’s other armies. They must have crossed the borders further north at the High Passes by now. They were supposed to be part of a pincer movement closing on Halim, the capital of Kharadrea. Now at least one part of that mighty encircling action was delayed, perhaps indefinitely. The Dark Empress’s armies would not stand idly by and fail to take advantage of that. Jaderac’s presence here was ample proof that they were aware of what was going on.

He stared up at the massive green bulk of the Tower. It caught the light of the sun, glittering like a spike of coloured ice. There was no sign of the strange glow from the previous night. He saw movement on the balconies and wondered if anyone was looking down at him. Kathea must be up there somewhere, the woman they had hoped to put on the throne of this nation. Sardec wondered if she was even still alive.

Another thought occurred to him. Ilmarec was a powerful sorcerer. Stripped of her elder signs and magical protection he doubted whether the heir to the throne would be able to resist the sort of magic he could bring to bear. Perhaps he was ensorcelling her mind. He wondered if he should mention this possibility to Asea and decided that it had undoubtedly already occurred to her.

Sardec relieved himself into a chamber pot. The matter of taking a piss was awkward with only one hand, and that not the usual one he had used all his life. The servant entered and began to help him dress. He was one of the soldiers, being paid extra for the duty. Sardec asked him how went the morning, and the toad-faced man did not give his usual cheery responses. He seemed somewhat subdued, and when Sardec questioned him, he talked about the light that had played about the Tower last night. It had given him bad dreams, he said. A lot of the other soldiers too.

“What sort of dreams?” Sardec asked.

“About Serpent Men and other monsters like the ones we fought in the mines, sir. Demons of the Elder World.” Sardec decided that he had better mention this matter to Lady Asea. It was not just him suffering these nightmares.

The soldier spoke to Sardec guilelessly of all the gossip he had heard, of how many of the noble Terrarchs in town were said to have Purple sympathies, and how most of the humans, particularly the merchants were in favour of the Scarlet.

This town was close to the Talorean border; they would do most of their business there. Of course, merchants were not to be trusted. Their allegiances could change with the wind, or the currents of trade. If the Purples were victorious most of the Scarlet’s present supporters would suddenly prove always to have been secret Purple sympathisers. It was the way of these things.

And there was more, according to the toad-faced man, a cloud of fear hung over the town. The locals were all terrified. Those who would talk about it spoke of strange lights dancing over the tower top. The whole place appeared plagued by bad dreams. Everyone was convinced that something terrible was going to happen. Many people had already left town. Many more were talking of leaving while they still could. Only the money to be made from selling to the Tower kept most of the merchants here. Only fear of what might happen to them if they tried to leave kept the Terrarchs.

Sardec finished dressing and tipped the man a couple of coppers for his trouble. The soldier retreated bowing his thanks, and taking the chamber pot with him. Sardec stalked his chamber, pacing backwards and forwards like a condemned man in his cell on the night before his execution. The townsfolk were not the only ones who were nervous. He felt trapped here, in the shadow of the tower, in a town where he did not know who to trust.

Another glance at the soldiers below reassured him. They were all in the same boat as he was. They were far from home, surrounded by strangers, but they did not look at all ill at ease. A few of them had started a card game. Others were playing pitch and toss against the walls of the former stable. A couple had started a mock wrestling match. Others stood around placing bets on the outcome. They did not look worried, then again he supposed, they did not share his sense of responsibility for their well-being.

Being a soldier was like being a child. The decisions were all left in the hands of the officers, just as they had once been in the hands of his parents. He doubted though that the men down there had the kind of blind trusting faith in him that he had once placed in his mother and father.

Suddenly there was a banging on the outer door and the sound of horns. Sergeant Hef slid aside the small view port and stared out. A moment later he beckoned to one of the soldiers and sent him racing off in the direction of the main house. Guessing what was coming, Sardec strode down the stairs to meet him.

“Messenger from Lord Ilmarec, sir,” said the soldier.

“Very good,” said Sardec walking over to join the Sergeant at the gate. He glanced out and saw a group of humans in green uniforms with a red serpent on a white background over their hearts. One of the men was a tall, slender ancient, with a white beard and cold, green eyes. He caught sight of Sardec’s Terrarch face and said: “I bring you greeting from Ilmarec, Lord of the Serpent Tower and by grace of God, Guardian of the West.”

The last was a subtle touch thought Sardec. Normally that title would be granted in the name of the ruler of the realm. Ilmarec was claiming to hold it by favour of the supreme power. Was he letting them know that he did not recognise Kathea’s claim to the throne, or that he was the supreme power here in his own right?

“Please thank Lord Ilmarec in the name of Azaar, Lord Commander of Queen Arielle’s army of the South, and Lady Asea of the First, his ambassador.”

“Most assuredly, sire. I have the humble duty of extending to the Lady Asea, and such retainers as she may wish to bring for her comfort, an invitation to call upon my Lord at her convenience. I am to await her gracious pleasure and convey her response to my master.”

“I will see that your master’s invitation is given to the Lady Asea.” Sardec turned and gestured to the Sergeant. Hef nodded to show his understanding. Since it was beneath the dignity of a Prince of the Realm to communicate with the human lackey of even so exalted a Terrarch as Lord Ilmarec, Sardec waited in silence for the response. The courier waited, totally at ease with the situation, which showed that Ilmarec trained his servants well if nothing else.

The Sergeant returned bearing a note sealed by Asea. Sardec opened it and read it and said. “The Lady Asea is pleased accept Lord Ilmarec’s invitation and asks his leave to call upon him at noon.”

The servant bowed and said: “I shall see that my master is informed of her Ladyship’s decision. With your leave, sire, I shall set out upon my duties.”

“By all means,” said Sardec, wondering exactly how many men Asea would want for her bodyguard.

Rik yawned despite his trepidation as they approached the Tower. He had not slept much last night. First there had been his encounter with Tamara, and then his limited explanations to Weasel and the Barbarian. Even after their return to the House of Three Swans, walking along streets bathed in the eerie green light streaming from the Serpent Tower, he had not been able to sleep.

He had kept turning over what Tamara and Asea had said in his mind, trying to sift out the truth of what they had told them, and see if there was any way he could use it to his advantage. He decided that he did not trust either of these two fine Terrarch ladies.

And there were other things to consider. Should he tell Asea what Tamara had said?

He had not had the time yet, and he was not sure he wanted to anyway. On the other hand, what would be the consequences if he did not, and she had, by her arcane means, already found out?

The approach road was narrow and winding, snaking appropriately as it approached the Tower of Serpents. It was just wide enough for a cart to go up but there was no room for one to turn without going over the edge. By the time it was halfway up the road that would make for a very long drop.

The Foragers marched two abreast, ten in front of Asea’s palanquin, ten behind. Sardec led from the front with Corporal Toby bringing up the rear. He was not surprised that Asea has insisted on bringing the half-breed and his two friends. She seemed very attached to them. Well, he supposed, they had saved her life in Achenar.

He wondered how the human girl Rena was taking his note. He supposed she would be keen enough. The protection of an officer like Sardec was something that most camp followers could only dream off.

Glancing over his shoulder he could see that there were people waiting on the road beneath them. The Serpent Tower commanded a fine view of all approaches. If Ilmarec had really mastered the green light, it would be unassailable.

All traffic on the road had been stopped while Lady Asea made her ascent but there was no mistaking the dozens of cartloads of provisions that waited at the bottom of the cliffs. Lord Ilmarec was preparing for a siege and a very long one.

In one way that was reassuring. It argued that he was not entirely confident in his powers. If his command of the Elder World weapons was so great he would have no fear of being starved out. Perhaps there were some limits to the power of the green light, perhaps it was like a cannon, and he only had a certain number of charges, or perhaps it was not entirely reliable.

The Tower itself looked ever more invincible as they approached. The outer wall was smooth as glass and abutted cliffs an ape might have trouble scaling. It was three times the height of a man and there were no handhold anywhere. No way to get ladders up, either, and even if you could there was very little space between the wall and the cliff edge. There were redoubts at each corner of the wall from which the defenders could shelter from dragonfire and devil wind and still shoot back. The gate had an odd look. It was like an oval cut off at the bottom. Sardec had heard that when it was closed it was as if the wall itself was sealed. There was no way through.

And there were defenders on the wall, more soldiers in green tunics, carrying muskets. They moved along in regular patrols and Sardec did not doubt that there were other eyes watching him from the guard towers. Dragons might be able to drop troops into the courtyard behind the gate but it would be a tricky business. Only a small number could be lifted in at a time and they would be under constant fire from the defenders. And there was no way a dragon could force itself through the entrances of the building themselves. The beasts were too large, the entrances too small.

Perhaps one or two men might be able to take and hold the gate and open it, assuming they understood the mechanism, but not if it were strongly held, and everything pointed towards the fact that it would be.

Sorcery might be the answer: elementals or demons such as the Crimson Shadows, but sorcery would only work if it could overcome the defensive spells on the Tower, and those had been millennia in the making. By all accounts Lord Ilmarec was a mage fully as formidable as Lady Asea so doubtless they would be all but impregnable. And undoubtedly he would have his own sorcerous retainers to call on.

Sardec considered alchemical weapons. You could lob spheres of poisonous gas over the walls, but such were always tricky weapons to use. Gas was heavier than the surrounding air. The defenders on the walls would most likely be safe unless the spheres landed exactly on the landings where they stood, and at the ranges involved it would be a tricky shot for even the best siege engineers. Supposing the shots hit, the bulk of the defenders could simply withdraw inside the tower itself, ands wait for the gas below them to disperse.

Gas was the only method Sardec could think of that might be effective, and it still left the problem of getting over those high outer walls. Unless the gate was open, men would have to get over those slippery smooth barriers and inside the courtyard. They would be doing it in the teeth of their own poison gas.

Putting all his thoughts together the best plan Sardec could think of would be to bombard the walls with alchemicals then drop a crack unit of dragon riders in to seize and open the gate; if you had a column of troops waiting at the foot of this road that would be the moment to rush in. A swift calculation told him it might just be possible. The dragons’ wing-beats might be able to disperse the gas. Their riders could be protected by filter masks. Such elite troops might be able to take the gates while the dragons held the courtyard against a sally from the Tower.

Sardec smiled ruefully. The plan might just work if he had access to every dragon in the realm of Talorea, and sufficient dragon riders and siege alchemists to support them. Even then it would be a terrible risk. If there were wyrm hunters or sufficiently powerful weapons in the Tower, the dragons might be crippled or killed and their riders slain before they ever reached the gates. The cost of failure would be catastrophic.

And Lord Ilmarec would be prepared. He was of the First and had had centuries to think of all these possibilities. Even if Sardec’s plan were successful it would only get his troops into the inner courtyard of the Serpent Tower and that might very easily be turned into a killing ground. And then there was still the Tower itself to be taken.

Even with a much larger force than Lord Azaar possessed it would be a difficult task. Such an attack could only succeed if everything went perfectly and it was Sardec’s experience that in matters military, as in life, nothing ever went that way.

They approached the gates. They were intricately moulded into an arch of coiling serpents. Over the centre of the archway a massive snake-like head gazed down. Its eyes were gem-like and they glowed. Sardec felt a chill settle on his soul as he looked at them. There was a malign intelligence in those gem eyes. A wave of sorcerous energy swept over him, sending chilly fingers up and down his spine. As far as he could tell nothing happened but he felt certain some potent magic had touched him. Briefly he had sensed the presence of a cold, furious intellect studying him. He dropped back to speak to Asea about it.

“It’s some sort of chained demon, possibly an Intelligence from the Pit,” she said. “Doubtless it watches for intruders and weaves spells on the unwelcome ones.”

“What sort of spells?”

“Most likely binding spells to hold them in place.”

“An interesting guardian.”

“Its demonic vision catches things that mortal eyes might miss. It would see those cloaked in spells of invisibility or those who came at night. It would give the alarm if there were stealthy intruders. It is perfectly possible the Intelligence controls the operation of the gates too.”

“It seems the Tower’s builders thought of everything.”

“They had centuries to do so, and enough powerful enemies to give them the incentive to be thorough.”

The sense of cold, implacable scrutiny increased as they marched closer to the gate, and then just as suddenly vanished as they passed within. Sardec made a careful note as they went through the archway. It was almost five yards deep. There were no signs of any doors at either end. It was as if they simply became part of the walls and vanished when they were not needed.

The courtyard around the Tower was massive enough to hold a regiment on parade but dwarfed by the structure itself. Its shadow chilled the air. There were buildings all around, of brick and quite obviously later additions. A host of cart men stood nearby, the unloading of their wagons forgotten as they watched the new arrivals with interest.

Green garbed soldiers were everywhere. An honour guard waited for them, ten times in number the size of the force Sardec had brought. As Lady Asea entered they presented their arms in salute with a precision that the Royal Guards themselves might have envied. Lord Ilmarec was sparing no effort to impress on them the power and efficiency of his retainers. Sardec had to admit that it was working.

As the last of his troops entered, the gates of the Tower closed behind them, sliding smoothly from within the walls, so that the entrance vanished as if it had never been. Well, thought Sardec, let us hope Lord Ilmarec is feeling friendly today.

If not, they were well and truly trapped.


Chapter Fifteen

<p>Chapter Fifteen</p>

Rik heard the doors close behind him. He felt trapped. His old thievish instincts made him deeply uneasy. No way out, he told himself.

They were outnumbered and outgunned. If Lord Ilmarec decided that now was a good time to do away with a rival mage there was nothing they could do about it except die heroically, and he had never been particularly enamoured of that idea.

Why had the Lady Asea come here, he wondered? Why had she put them in the power of some mad Elder Race-obsessed sorcerer? Had she a death wish?

Her calm beautiful face told him that if she was in the slightest intimidated, she was not letting it show. In fact her features lit up with a lovely smile, quite the warmest he had ever seen her give.

“Lord Ilmarec,” she said. “How pleasant it is to see you once again.”

A tall, lean Terrarch, silver-haired and smoothly beautiful walked towards them. His tread was feline, his movements perfectly controlled. Unlike most male Terrarchs he was bearded, a small goatee descended from his chin, as silver as his hair and his eyebrows. Two waves of hair curled up over his forehead, oddly horn-like, in a way that made Rik think of the depiction of demons. Lord Ilmarec bowed. “The pleasure is mine, Lady Asea.”

The newcomer’s smile was chilly, his teeth small and sharp looking. His clothes were elaborate to the point of foppishness and in a style that Rik had only seen previously on the ancient statues in the squares of Sorrow. Obviously this was not a Terrarch overly concerned with the latest fashions.

On his chest was a large amulet of silver and within it a green stone glowed. Rik had seen that colour before, in the woods near the Serpent Man ruins and on the tip of the Tower at night. The sight of it filled him with foreboding.

Behind Ilmarec was a figure entirely shrouded in robes. Cowls hid its head, voluminous sleeves covered its hands, the skirts of its robes went all the way to the ground so that not even its feet were visible. Its robes constantly rippled and bulged in odd places as if a nest of serpents fought within them. The thing did not seem to walk so much as glide. An odd, fusty leathery smell came from its direction when the wind was right. There was an air of terrible menace about the creature, the feeling that they were in the presence of some old supernatural evil.

Asea and Ilmarec went into the long exchange of formalities obligatory when two Terrarchs of their age and rank met. Rik paid careful attention to Ilmarec. Like Asea he wore power like a cloak. Even if Rik had not known he was a sorcerer he would have guessed it.

At last, when the bowing and speech-making was done, Ilmarec led them through the entrance of his Tower. Rik noticed there was another of those strange serpents carved over the archway. Its jewelled eyes glittered in a manner that reminded him of the gem on Ilmarec’s medallion. Every man who went before him shivered as he passed into the darkness, as if they felt the touch of some dark sorcery.

Rik felt nothing as he passed under the thing’s gaze but decided to pretend that he did, just in case anybody was watching. Under the circumstances, it seemed best not to stand out from the crowd.

The first things Sardec noticed when he stepped inside the Tower were the lights. They were of green crystal, set in the ceiling, and gave a soft glow that illuminated the place eerily. They seemed intended for creatures whose eyesight operated in a somewhat different fashion from his own.

The next thing he noticed was that the walls were oddly curved. Like the gates they resembled an oval cut off at the base. They ran through the walls of the Tower like veins. There was no brickwork, and it all contributed to the impression that the structure had somehow been moulded in one piece. The floor beneath his feet was not slippery although it was as smooth and glassy-looking as the rest of the material. He reached out and touched one wall with his fleshly hand. It was cool and smooth to the touch. How was this place kept warm in the winter?

They entered a large chamber. On one side was a throne. It rose from the floor seamlessly as if it too were a moulded component. Other benches, low and cool and comfortable, were arranged around the walls of a sunken amphitheatre in front of it. Ilmarec indicated by a gesture that Sardec and Asea should sit. The human soldiers could stand behind them. The sorcerer took his place on the throne, and looked down on them, a king studying petitioning subjects. The heavily robed figure took up a position just behind him. Servants entered bearing trays of refreshments for the Terrarchs. Once they were served, Ilmarec turned to affairs of state. They spoke in the old High Tongue so that none of the humans present could understand.

“It does my heart good to see you once more, Asea, but I suspect that this is more than a personal visit.”

“Lord Azaar had sent me to inquire about Queen Kathea. He believes she is being held within the Tower.” It was a shockingly blunt statement. Asea obviously felt no need to observe the niceties of diplomatic language. Under the circumstances, Sardec could not blame her. Time was of vital importance in the prosecution of this war. If Ilmarec was surprised, he gave no sign.

“My niece is here for her own protection, Asea. There are those who would kill her if they could. I would not have her join her poor father so swiftly.”

“It seems to me that your niece should be allowed to make her own decision in the matter.”

“I assure you she is here of her own free will.”

“I had heard some of her troops died trying to free her.”

“A misunderstanding. There are always hotheads in any army. Once the situation was properly explained to them, they saw the light.”

There were the undertones of an unpleasant joke in the way Ilmarec stressed the word light. Sardec thought of the green light at once, as, no doubt, he was intended to.

“I am here to make sure Kathea is with you of her own accord, that her decision was shall we say…unforced?”

Ilmarec smiled coldly. “As you and my old friend Azaar would undoubtedly allow her to make her decisions — as long as they suited your purposes.”

Asea was not the only one here capable of speaking bluntly.

“We would see her on her rightful throne.”

“As you saw Arielle on hers?” There was a note of mockery in Ilmarec’s voice.

Asea smiled. “Your manners have altered for the worse since last I saw you.”

“Pray forgive me, Lady. I did not mean to offend you but you see, you have offended me, by implying that my motives are somehow less pure than your own undoubtedly are. Believe me, I intend to see that my niece is safe and I have the power to ensure it is so.”

“Perhaps you overestimate the strength of your Tower.”

“That is virtually impossible.”

“You are confident that you can face down all the armies of the East without allies?”

“To be frank, should the need arise, yes.”

“Then you have grown mighty indeed, my Lord.”

“I have grown mighty, Asea. More powerful than you could ever dream.”

“Really,” said Asea. Her smile had a woman’s effortless mockery of male vanity in it. If this affected Ilmarec he gave no sign.

“Join me, Asea. You too, Lieutenant. I have something to show you. I believe you will find it of interest.”

“I would speak with Kathea,” said Asea.

“You will have the opportunity to do so.”

Ilmarec rose from the throne and flanked by his robed shadow headed for the exit. He paused to indicate that the two of them should follow. Sardec was not sure of the wisdom of doing so. It would mean leaving the Foragers behind. They might not be able to provide much protection within the Tower but they were the only troops he had on hand, and he was loathe to abandon them. He glanced at Asea. She nodded almost imperceptibly and rose to follow Ilmarec.

There was nothing else for Sardec to do but accompany her.

“I don’t like this at all, Halfbreed,” said the Barbarian. Rik was forced to agree. This was an uncanny place. The lighting and the strange Elder World architecture reminded him of the lost city of Uran Ultar.

“Really?” said Weasel in a low murmur. “What is there to dislike — Elder World sorcery, all the gates locked and us surrounded by a small army? I don’t see what you are whining about.”

“What about that thing at the gates?” said the Barbarian. “It fairly made my flesh crawl. It felt as if some demon was peering straight into my soul.”

Rik was about to ask him what he was talking about when Weasel said: “Aye, that was a shocker and no mistake.”

Weasel was not a man to ever admit to being frightened, so it must have been a powerful thing indeed. Rik heard others muttering about it, and saw them making Elder signs in the air with their fingers. He seemed to be the only man in the squad who had missed out on the experience.

“And what was that robed thing hovering beside Ilmarec?”

“Some ancient evil brought to life by dark sorcery, no doubt,” said Rik.

“It didn’t half smell,” said the Barbarian.

“It would probably say the same about you,” said Weasel.

“You think old Ilmarec is going to lock up the Lieutenant and the Lady?” The Barbarian asked.

“I don’t know. Why don’t you ask him?” said Weasel.

“We’d better hope not,” said Rik. “If he imprisons them, think what he might do to us. We are not Terrarchs. He likes to toss insubordinate humans off the walls or so I hear. That means you two could be in for a long drop.”

“You’ll be safe then, Halfbreed,” said Weasel. “There’s nothing much human about you.”

The ramp wound a long way up through the centre of the Tower, spiralling for so long that Sardec began to feel dizzy. Just when he had started to wonder whether it would ever end, they emerged onto a landing. They were not quite on the roof but they were close. Only a short spike of jade-like substance rose above them. Sardec could not help but notice that a huge, greenly glowing gem was mounted atop the spike.

“The Fang of the Serpent,” said Ilmarec, gesturing to the jewel.

“Is this the source of your new-found power?” asked Asea.

“As you know I have always maintained we Terrarchs were too certain of our own superior wisdom. The Sathur possessed the secret of magic that makes ours look like child’s play.”

“You are about to demonstrate this, I suppose.”

“I have been busy while you played at politics, Asea. I have been about the business of learning our craft, a thing that you seem to have sorely neglected of late.”

A dangerous note had entered Ilmarec’s voice and a wild light was in his eye. Sardec weighed the chances of pushing the wizard from the roof of the Tower. He was fairly certain he could manage it before Ilmarec could react. The only question then was what would the robed figure do, and all the retainers in the Tower? He might be able to assassinate the Tower’s master but he was sure that he would join him in death minutes later, at most.

As if it sensed his thoughts the robed figure moved closer, swirling between him and the sorcerer. As the wind whipped its robes around its ankles, he noticed it had no feet. No limbs touched the ground. Whatever was within those bundles of cloth, it was floating, not walking. He shivered and peered into its cowl. He thought he caught sight of faint glowing lights there, but he could be wrong. The hairs on the back of his neck rose. Ilmarec’s guardian was undoubtedly the product of dark and evil sorcery.

“You may be right,” said Asea. She sounded unusually tired and forthright. “Why don’t you just show us what you brought us here to see?”

Ilmarec nodded slightly. “You see that building there, amid the shattered ruins?”

Asea nodded.

“Watch!”

He closed his eyes and raised his hands in the air and chanted something in a language part hisses and part guttural growling. The gem above them glowed softly and then gave forth a pulse of light. Sardec felt a brief sensation of almost intolerable heat. The light touched the huge rock, and the stone flew apart. A few moments later, there came a sound like a thunderclap.

Sardec was awestruck. Glowing chips of broken stone lay everywhere. A cloud of what might have been steam rose above it. He had never seen a weapon of such power. Dragon breath would merely have heated a building that size, and a cannonball knocked chips from it. This was something else.

It was as if God had struck the rock with his thunderbolt. Such a weapon could destroy a siege engine long before it got within range of the Tower. It could blast a dragon from the sky. Perhaps it could single out a sorcerer in the midst of an army. An enemy wizard might never get to finish his rituals before being sent screaming straight to hell. Ilmarec was indeed secure in his Tower.

Asea’s face was a mask of calm control. “That is the weapon the Sathur used against our fleet at Ssaharoc. You have learned their secrets.”

“Indeed.”

“How did you do it?”

“Centuries of study, of course.” Even Sardec heard the lie in his words. Perhaps Ilmarec intended it. Or perhaps power had gone to his head and clouded his judgement.

“You finally found a way into the sealed areas of the Tower.”

“Yes, Asea, I did. It was not easy but I did it.”

“There are those who would pay you a fortune for the secret of such a thing,” said Sardec.

“I have a fortune. I don’t need another.”

“What do you want then?” Asea asked.

“To be left in peace by both sides in your putrid little squabble. For my nation to be spared the agony of having more centuries of war fought over it.”

“If I had my way you would have those things,” said Asea.

“Oddly enough, your friend Lord Jaderac said the same thing.”

“Jaderac wants to see the old rule restored. He wants all humans to be thralls again. The world has changed. He is fighting against history.”

“He thinks he is fighting against you, Asea. And Azaar. And those who support the two of you.” He smiled and almost as an afterthought added; “And Queen Arielle, of course.”

“We have talked about this before, you and I. We could not keep the humans enslaved forever. They have learned too much. They are too many. They are too strong.”

“Jaderac and his kind are strong as well.”

“Not strong enough.”

“Perhaps you are right. Perhaps not. I fear Lord Jaderac has been dabbling in forbidden arts. I fear many easterners have, in preparation for the struggle with our former slaves.”

“What do you mean?” Asea asked.

“I have talked with Lord Jaderac. He sought to impress me with the depths of his knowledge, the extent of his power. It was a veiled threat of course, and he did impress me, although not in the way I think he wanted to.”

“He threatened you.”

“Old secrets have been rediscovered in the East, Asea. Things that had best been left well alone. Sorcery of the darkest sort, the kind we all foreswore when we left Al’Terra. When the next war comes it will be unleashed against you, and against me, of course, if I do not do what Jaderac, and the Queen-Empress wants. The puppy has become quite the wolf, it seems.”

“Ally with us,” said Asea. “You need have nothing to fear from him then.”

“I have nothing to fear from him now.”

“Even with Elder World weapons you could be starved out from this tower. An army need only wait beyond reach of the green light and poison your fields by night.”

“I can see you have given some thought to this matter, Asea, but you are wrong. I have power that puts me beyond the reach of siege. You can feel it, can you not? You can feel it in the air around us.”

“I can sense the gathering energies of Elder World sorcery.”

“Have you sensed power so great since you set foot on this pitiful sphere of mud?”

Asea looked at him squarely. “No.”

“I have acquired power enough to change the world,” said Ilmarec. “And soon I will demonstrate that.”

“You will not treat with us then?”

“I have no need to Asea. I will show the world that Kharadrea can stand apart. Your armies will leave our soil.”

“Lord Azaar may disagree.”

“In a few days Lord Azaar will be beyond disagreeing. If he does not leave my country.”

“It is not your country,” said Asea. “It belongs to Queen Kathea.”

“Once we are married, I will be co-ruler.”

“Married?” said Sardec.

“Yes, Lieutenant, married.”

“Kathea would never marry you of her free will,” said Asea.

“There you are wrong. She is quite glad to. She believes in the power I possess. It’s not the most romantic basis for matrimony I will grant you, but then this is a marriage of convenience on both sides.”

“I would have words with Queen Kathea about this,” said Asea.

“By all means,” said Ilmarec. “Let us go and speak with my future bride.”

Kathea was as lovely a Terrarch as Sardec had ever seen. She was tall, if not quite so tall as Asea; her hair was honey gold, her eyes cornflower blue. Her blue robes matched her eyes. Their gold trim matched her hair.

Her chamber was luxurious even by the standards of Terrarch nobility. Silken hangings from the Land of the Purple Masks covered the walls. A tall mirror trimmed with silver and large enough for her to look at herself full length was set by the door. The bed was large and hung round with nets. Elder signs were set on shelves. She looked at Asea as she entered, half-fearful, half defiant.

“Lord Azaar has sent me,” said Asea, “to make sure you are in good health.”

“Never better, Lady Asea,” said Kathea. Her voice quavered only a little.

“Lord Ilmarec tells me you are betrothed.”

“It is for the good of our land. My Lord has explained to me that it is for the best, and I agree with him.”

“Queen Arielle has already committed her armies to helping you.”

“I have a note for my queenly cousin,” said Kathea. “It begs her to withdraw her armies from the soil of my territory. My future consort is quite capable of protecting my lands without foreign aid.”

“That is why he sent the remnants of your army under Lord Esteril to be destroyed by Lord Azaar.”

Of course, thought Sardec. He suddenly felt slow and stupid. At last he made sense of the battle they had fought. If Ilmarec possessed the power he claimed, the outcome would not matter. If Esteril had won, he would have removed any threat Azaar presented. If, as was more likely, Azaar triumphed, then Kathea was bereft of the remnants of her own army, and entirely in the power of her uncle.

“I fear Lord Esteril took the matter into his own hands,” said Ilmarec smoothly. “He was ever hungry for glory, and what could be more glorious than defeating Lord Azaar.”

A brief look of despair passed over Kathea’s face. She knew how trapped she was. It came to Sardec that Ilmarec was playing a fine game here. Kathea had delivered to them the message he wanted, and they had delivered the same to her. The only question now was whether, the Lord of the Serpent Tower really possessed the power he thought he did. This could all be a superb bluff on Ilmarec’s part, but he doubted it. The stakes were far too high.

“If your curiosity about my betrothed’s health and intentions is satisfied, Asea, I will see you on your way.” The words were curt, minimally polite, the speech of one who knows he holds all the deck’s best cards.

“Tell Azaar he has three days to withdraw or he will be destroyed.”


Chapter Sixteen

<p>Chapter Sixteen</p>

Sardec hustled the Foragers through the gates of the House of Three Swans. The crawling sensation between his shoulder blades decreased. He had feared something the whole time they had made their way along the street. He had felt deeply uneasy ever since their meeting with Lord Ilmarec.

“I thank you for your efforts to get me here safely,” said Lady Asea.

“It was my pleasure as well as my duty, milady,” said Sardec. They exchanged smiles of such warmth that Sardec immediately understood the strain they had both been under.

“Perhaps once I have had a few minutes to recover, you will visit me in my chambers. We have much to discuss and little time to do it in.”

Sardec knocked on the door of Asea’s suite. He had spent the intervening time checking lines of fire from the windows out into the street and he was happy that things were as well arranged as they could be.

“Enter,” said Asea.

He made sure the door was closed behind him. In a house like this you could never tell who might be listening. She saw the direction of his look, and said, “Don’t worry these chambers are warded.”

“What is happening?”

“ Lord Ilmarec is planning a great sorcerous ritual. His damned fortress seethes with more power than I had ever expected to find in this poor drained world. Even here, behind my own wards, my head is all but splitting.”

“I am afraid my knowledge of sorcery is less than great, milady.”

“The flows of magical energy here are the greatest I have sensed since we left Al’Terra. Lord Ilmarec not only commands an impregnable fortress but the greatest amassing of sorcerous power in this world.”

“He was not bluffing then when he said he would destroy Lord Azaar’s army.”

“No. I do not think he was bluffing.”

“You think he plans to summon something?”

“I don’t know. I do know that there is more magical energy bound within the walls of the Tower than I have felt since setting foot on this world.”

“Bound…”

“There is something within the Tower that generates tau in enormous quantities, in amounts I have never felt since we left the home world.”

“I have never heard of such a thing.”

“Nor I. It was not there when I last visited Ilmarec. At least it was not active.” Sardec considered this. There could only be one possible source of such power.

“You think Ilmarec has woken some ancient device of the Serpent Men.”

“That seems the most likely explanation. The energy is strange and tainted.”

“In what way, tainted?”

“There are traces of corruption in it. It is not pure tau. Such stuff existed on Al’Terra. Using it drove some sorcerers mad.”

“You think he has dabbled in forbidden sorcery and gone crazy.”

“Ilmarec has access to the tainted power. He channels it through the jewel in his amulet. He is drawing on its energies enormously for his own purposes. It is quite possible that it might have driven even one of his experience insane.”

“So the Serpent Tower and all its alien weapons are in the hands of a maniac?”

“I fear it may be so, and that even Ilmarec may not be able to harness so much power. I tremble to think what might happen if it runs out of control.”

“What was that thing with him, Lady? His bodyguard.”

“A demon of an ancient sort. That he could raise it here speaks of how much his power has grown in recent years. I did not think it was possible for anyone to contact the Planes of Ahenna from this world. I could not.”

“What ritual do you think Ilmarec will perform?”

“I wish I knew. With the energy of the Tower, he could summon an army of demons.”

“That is not a reassuring thought. That would be insane.”

“Ilmarec no longer seems entirely sane.”

“You think he would move against us?”

“He has the future Queen of Kharadrea in his power. He has access to Elder World sorcery and weapons. From his point of view, he is in a very strong position. He very well might.”

“Do you think he could be persuaded to stand beside us and against the Dark Empire?”

“What can we offer him that he does not already have? How can we force him to allow our army safe passage? He can sit up there in his impregnable fortress and laugh at us.”

“Then there is very little we can do.”

“I believe I may have the means to put a man inside the Tower.”

“What good would one man do? Unless he can open the gates for us. Even then we would have to dash up that causeway under the gaze of the Serpent’s eye and its green light.”

“I think it would be better to think in terms of what we can get out rather than what we can put in.”

“You mean to rescue Kathea? We would still have to get her away from here, and that might prove difficult. That accursed light can sweep anything from the surrounding countryside.”

“If you have a better plan I am willing to listen, otherwise you might want to hear me out.”

“Please proceed, milady, and forgive my lack of courtesy.”

“I will need the use of some of your men, particularly the one called the Halfbreed.”

“Why him, milady?”

“He has the talents I require and as a half-breed he will be more receptive to the magic I need to work.”

“Whatever you require I will provide if it’s within my power, but how can you get him inside?”

“There are certain sorceries. They are risky but they must be attempted. Once they have been woven one man might be able to pass the gate guardian.”

“To do what?”

“To locate the Queen and bring her out.”

“Do you really think that is possible? Won’t it put Kathea’s life in jeopardy?”

“If Ilmarec meant to kill her, he would have done so already.”

“There’s a difference between killing someone you hold secure and who is of use to you, and killing someone who is in the process of escaping and will become your sworn enemy if they do so.”

“Thank you for pointing the obvious out to me, Lieutenant.”

“My pleasure, Lady,” said Sardec, grinning. She smiled back.

“There are other possibilities we need to consider.” Sardec did not like the tone in which she said that.

“What you said about Kathea applies just as much from our point of view as Ilmarec’s.”

“What are you saying, Lady?”

“I am saying it would be better for Kathea to be dead than against us.”

“I am not sure I can countenance assassination, Lady Asea.”

“Even if it means the defeat of our country, and its fall to the Dark Empire?” Sardec considered this. Asea was right, of course. If Kathea had turned against them, all her subjects would too.

“Ilmarec seems to be just as much against the Dark Empire as we are,” he said, to give himself more time to think.

“Are you absolutely certain of that, Lieutenant, and are you absolutely certain it will stay that way. At the moment, we have only his word for it, and he seems quite mad.”

“It would be best if we had Queen Kathea alive,” he said.

“Agreed, but if we cannot?”

“Then as a last resort, and only as a last resort, she should be killed. There is another alternative I am surprised you have not suggested.”

“What is that?”

“We could have your man kill Lord Ilmarec.”

“I am not certain that is possible. His bodyguard is all but invulnerable.”

“But if it was possible?”

“If the opportunity arises, I agree it would be the best.”

“It is something to factor into our plans then.”

“Yes,” she said. “It would be best.”

“It probably won’t come to it. And anyway, the odds are not much in our favour.”

“I know this is a desperate roll of the dice, Lieutenant, but what is the alternative — to do nothing and wait for disaster to roll over our army and our country? Military solutions are impossible. We could not get Ilmarec out of the Tower with a score of dragons and an army ten times the size of Azaar’s. Not in the next few years, anyway.”

“What do we need?”

“A plan of the Tower. Fortunately I have one.”

“You have?”

“In a life as long as mine you learn to prepare for any contingency, Lieutenant. When Ilmarec took the Tower as his residence, the possibility that we might need to get him out of it arose.”

Sardec looked at her. That scheme must have been born at least five centuries ago. He thought of the use such a plan might be put to: to get an assassin inside the Tower for instance.

“We also need a plan for getting us out of the city unnoticed and a way to keep ourselves safe while we do so.”

“All of these things can be managed. We will also need a way to get your man into the Tower.”

“I have thought of it. We will need to contact the local thieves. I will send some men to get what we need.”

“What makes you think they will help us?”

“I have done business with them before,” said Asea. Somehow this knowledge did not surprise Sardec. “If you will excuse me, Lieutenant, I would talk with my agent.”

“As you wish.” Sardec bowed and left.

“I have a task for you, one that is very dangerous,” said Asea.

“You want me to kill Tamara and Jaderac?” Rik thought he had better bring the matter of Tamara up first, just in case Asea was about to.

“Not at the moment. I want you to enter the Tower of the Serpent and free Queen Kathea.”

Rik laughed outright. “Perhaps you would like me to grow wings and fly you to the moon as well. The Tower is impregnable. Trust me, I am an expert.”

“I can get you inside.”

“Then you are a magician indeed.”

“Sorcery won’t be necessary, at least not on my part.”

Rik studied her carefully. She was serious. Perhaps she had figured out a way to get him into the Tower. Still, it was madness. Even if he could get in, he would be one man, in a strange place, filled with evil sorcery. Kathea was bound to be guarded. How was he supposed to find her and bring her out alive? It was impossible. He said so.

“Nonetheless I fear we will have to try.”

His laugh was mirthless now. “What do you mean, we? I am the one being asked to go in.”

“Rik unless Kathea is freed and Ilmarec disarmed, this war will be lost before it’s even started. We may as well go home and wait for the legions of the Dark Empire to roll over our borders, for they will eventually, if we allow them to take control of Kharadrea.”

“I am not sure my committing suicide will help the matter.”

“I admit the chances of success are slim but we have no option.”

“Again I hear that interesting use of the word we, again. Will you be coming with me?”

“Unfortunately, no. The Tower’s guardians would detect me immediately. They would not detect you, for reasons I have already explained.”

“Because I am a Shadowblood?”

“Perhaps you would like to say that a bit louder. The local Inquisitors may not have heard you.”

“I don’t think it makes much difference who kills me, do you? Ilmarec’s guards or the Inquisition.”

She appeared to consider the question seriously. “The Inquisition will see you suffer before you die. They will scourge you, and their techniques will show a good deal of refinement.”

Rik heard the veiled threat. He knew without having to ask that she would hand him over to the Inquisitors if he did not serve her purposes. “You would do that?”

“I do not want to, Rik, but you should also remember that you and your friends were directly responsible for Uran Ultar being unleashed. That is a matter the Lords Inquisitorial would be greatly interested in.”

And there was another threat; it was not just him who would suffer but his friends also. Rik was surprised to discover that he did care about that — just a little. He had always thought of himself as a supremely self-interested man, but he would not want anything bad to happen to Weasel and the Barbarian if he could help it.

“This is not fair,” he said, realising even as he said it just how childish it sounded.

“Life is not fair, Rik. You know it and I know it. Only children protest otherwise.”

“It seems to me that it’s a lot less fair for me than it is for you.”

“I can see why you would think that, but then you are not in any position to judge my life.”

“Heaven forbid that I should do that.”

“I understand that this makes you bitter, Rik, but there is an upside to all of this.”

“I would be glad if you could explain it to me.”

“If you succeed, the rewards will be immense.”

“How immense?” He could not help himself. He was a Sorrow street-boy. His cupidity and curiosity were both aroused by her statement.

“You will have both my gratitude and the gratitude of the Queen.”

“Gratitude buys no chickens.”

“You will be rewarded and you will be a hero. You will be the man who single-handedly changed the course of the war. There will be a good deal of gold, estates, I could even see to it that you are adopted into my clan. You have the blood and you have the appearance, and if you were successful you would have such prestige that none would question your right to it. The Terrarchs would rather believe that one of their own did such a deed than a human.”

There was indeed an upside to what she was offering. She was holding the door open to a world of immense wealth and privilege, to a life of luxury such as not even the wealthiest human could dream. She was appealing to his vanity, and his need for a place in the world too.

He knew that what she said was true. He would have proven his worthiness to be a Terrarch. More than that he would have shown he had done something that none of them could do, that not only was he as good as they were, he was better. It was a potent image to lodge in his mind. Of course, in order to achieve all this he would have to survive. Another question struck him.

“Won’t there be questions asked about how I did this? Won’t people wonder about how I beat Ilmarec’s wards and his demons?”

She smiled sensing her triumph, the change in his attitude. “I will tell them my sorcery shielded you. I have already begun explaining this to Lieutenant Sardec.”

“And if I survive this, you will teach me sorcery.”

“If you still wish it.”

“I have your word as one of the First.”

“You have my word.” If he lived he might become wealthy, famous and noble. He would also have access to the world of secret knowledge he had always thirsted for. He considered his position. If he disobeyed Asea his death was certain. He might try killing her now and making his escape but he doubted he would get far. All that would happen was he would find another route to the gallows. For all her talk he doubted Tamara would help him once the deed was done.

If he succeeded he could be rich beyond his wildest dreams, and powerful too. He could step out of the shadows and into the sunlight.

“Let me hear your plan,” he said.

“It is quite simple,” she said.

“All the best plans are.”

“We need to conceal you in one of the carts going in to the Tower.”

His heart sank. He had been expecting something much cleverer and more devious. She caught his expression.

“You saw for yourself what happened when we went through the gates of the Tower. The sentries are overconfident. They do not check the carts because they know that the demon will spot the life force of anyone concealed within them and sound the alarm.”

She caught his interest with that. “Spot the life force?”

“Yes. Demons do not see as humans do unless they are bound into a mortal form. They see the souls, the life energy of living things. The being within those gargoyles does not have eyes such as you possess. It does not need them. It sees souls as patterns of energy, as powerful sorcerers do when they use mage sight. They see the aura of things. A man concealed within a pile of sacks would still be visible because his life force would be distinct and unique. It will not see you.”

This was news to Rik. A question sprang into his mind, related to what she had told him earlier. “If that is the case, why can’t your people use magesight to spot the Shadowblood? Surely the absence of something is as noticeable as its presence. If you see a living man without an aura, you would know there was something wrong.”

“It’s not that simple, Rik. The Shadowblood could alter their auras at will. You do not have their skills. Just their raw gifts. Hopefully for this, it should be enough.”

“How do you know this power will work against the guardians of the Tower?”

“Tell me, Rik, what did you feel when you passed through the gateways into the Tower?”

He considered lying. The truth sidled out anyway. “Nothing.”

“Every other person that passed through those doorways felt something. They felt the presence of the demon observing them. You did not feel it, because it did not sense you.”

“That seems flimsy evidence at best.”

“Rik, one of us here is a sorcerer with two thousand years of experience. That person is not you. I suggest you listen to me. This is my field.”

There was no answer to that so he just stared at her sullenly. She continued to speak. “There were such guardians on Al’Terra and the Shadowblood bypassed them unnoticed. The risk is worth taking.”

“It’s a risk worth me taking anyway,” he muttered. She pretended not to notice what he had said. “What will I do once I am inside? Surely they will spot me once the cart is being unloaded.”

“You will simply pretend to be one of the carters. People see what they expect to see, and everyone knows that the gates are impassable by outsiders. Find a place to conceal yourself, wait until nightfall and then head into the Tower.”

“What if I can’t?”

“I rely on your ingenuity, Rik. You have demonstrated it before.”

“If you will forgive me for saying so, it’s not much of a plan.”

“No, it’s not. But it’s the best I can do.” She gave him a look full of sorrow and pity and desperation. The mask had slipped and he suddenly saw exactly how desperate she was that she should contemplate this. She had helped break an empire and now she was forced to rely on a half-breed boy to save everything she had helped build. If they failed here she would lose more than her life’s work. She would lose her life.

Then again, at this moment, she was not risking very much, only his life. He had already been furnished with ample proof that the Terrarch Lords of the world did not consider it worth a great deal.

Once more, his thoughts turned to escape. If what she said about his bloodline was true, he would be very difficult for them to find, if he could get out of their sight. Then again, he would be a stranger in a war torn land, an enemy to both sides, with no friends and no resources. He told himself that was a position he had been in before but that did not make things look any better.

“Tell me more of these Shadowblood, were they truly undetectable? Was there no way to find them by sorcery?” She smiled almost as if she was reading his thoughts.

“There are always ways, if you have the tools.”

“What do you mean?”

“If I had a lock of your hair, or a sample of your blood or anything else intimately connected with you, I could find you.”

“How?”

“There are creatures of the aether, demons if you will, who have senses of what- for want of a better word — we will call smell, a thousand times keener than a bloodhound. With something to trace, they can find anything.”

“Why did you not use them on Al’Terra?”

“We did. And sometimes they worked. And sometimes they were baffled by more powerful sorcery. We were not the only ones who used magic, Rik. Rest assured, wherever you go I can find you.”

He thought back to the lock of hair she had taken back in the tent. “You lied to me,” he said.

“No, Rik, I just did not tell you the entire truth. I will destroy the lock when it is no longer needed.” He felt angry and foolish, but realised that anger would do him no good in this place at this time. He needed to get himself under control if he was going to survive. “What can you do to help me on this mission?”

“I can provide you with maps of the Tower’s interior. I can even provide you with a guard’s uniform. I can provide you with some unusual weapons as well.”

That sounded more promising. “What can you give me? Magical weapons?”

“No. Those would be noticed by the guardians. Such weapons have auras just like any living things. They are imbued with magical energy. I can give you poisons…”

“What do you want me to do — poison the water supply?”

“No, I will give you magebane, which is extremely painful to anyone using magic, and I will give you drugs that will heighten your speed and strength.”

“I will need those.”

“There is one thing, Rik. If the opportunity should arise to acquire the glowing necklace that Ilmarec wears on his neck, take it. All the sorcerous defences of the Tower are tied to it. Given time, I could make good use of it.”

“I’m sure he will notice if I take his amulet.”

“Not if he is dead. That would solve a number of our problems.”

“You are saying that if the opportunity should arise, I am to kill Ilmarec.”

“You are a soldier. He is the enemy.”

“He is a Terrarch Lord. I am a human. Burning at the stake is the penalty for such a killing.”

“Not under the circumstances. This is war.”

“His retainers might, if they catch me.”

“Then best see that you are not caught.”

Rik glared at her. He could not help but feel that he was being bundled off on a suicide mission. If he succeeded Asea would grab most of the glory, for it would be her spells that protected him, or so she would claim, and he was in no position to contest that. If he failed, she would still be safe in this mansion, a rich wealthy Terrarch lady. As he had always been his whole life, he was trapped and in the power of the world’s rulers. He did not really have a say in what was going on. The best he could hope to do was sneak away, and even then he knew that, if ever they caught up with him, the penalties would be grave.

“You are looking very thoughtful,” she said.

“I am merely contemplating my chances of success,” he said. “They are not good are they?”

“No,” she agreed. “They are not.”

“Is there anything I can do to improve them?”

“You could try prayer.”

He looked at her, not sure if she was entirely serious.

“How are we to acquire a cart?” he said.

“There is a man who will help you. He is a power among the thieves in this city. I believe you have already made his acquaintance. His name is Black Tomar.”

Rik kept his face impassive. What was the connection between Asea and the local gang boss? “Why should he help us?”

“Because he will, believe me,” she said. Rik suppressed a shiver. He wondered how much contact Asea had with Tomar, whether he knew of what had happened- what had been said- with Tamara the other night.

Asea smiled almost as if she were reading his thoughts. “Give him this coin. He will know you are my messenger.”

She placed an ancient gold coin on the table. Rik picked it up and inspected it. It was a very old one, its face almost worn away; someone had indented a strange pattern on its edge, he could feel it with his finger. Rik slipped it into his pocket.

“Anything else?”

“You should be very careful, Rik, about who you talk to and what you say,” Asea said. There was a strange edge to her smile. How much did she know, he wondered?

Rik stamped the mud from his boots, wiped the rain from his forehead and followed Weasel and the Barbarian into the Snake’s Head. He cursed the weather, and he cursed the strange light from the Tower even though it lit the gloomy streets. There was something about that hellish glow that made the space between his shoulder blades crawl.

The tavern was full of worried-looking men and the kind of swift coming and going common in thieves’ haunts in times of unrest. There were a lot of opportunities out there right now. The knowledge made Rik’s fingers tingle and he felt almost tempted to go out and join in the looting.

Instead he worked his way up to the bar, behind Weasel and the Barbarian. A big, craggy-looking man greeted them with a raised finger to the barman. Three drinks were swiftly poured and placed in front of them. From this Rik deduced the man was Black Tomar, the owner, who Weasel had come to do business with the other night. He glanced around half-hoping to see Tamara, but there was absolutely no sign of her. He wondered if he would ever see her again. He pushed the thought aside; now was the time to be about Lady Asea’s business.

“Good evening,” Tomar said by way of greeting. His eyes flickered over Rik with more than casual interest. It was swiftly done but he was aware of the scrutiny nonetheless.

“Greetings, matey,” said Weasel in his most open, peasant manner, always a sign that he was most on guard.

“I am surprised to see you on a night like tonight,” said Tomar. “I thought you would be inside the House of Three Swans or maybe even still up at the Tower with Lord Ilmarec.”

“So you know about that then?” said Weasel.

“Hard not to notice when you see a company of foreign soldiers go up Snake Road.”

“I suppose so,” said Weasel. “You thought any about what we talked about last night?”

“Yes. You can tell the Quartermaster his reputation precedes him, and I’ll be happy to do business with him.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Weasel. Tomar gestured them over to a quiet alcove, a place where he could watch business go on around him but could not be overlooked or overheard.

“To tell the truth,” he said, which Rik always assumed was a sign that the speaker was going to do anything but. “I’m glad to help. I’ve never been keen on the Purples- what man could be? The Scarlets have always been better for our sort, even if not by much.”

Rik revised his opinion. That seemed an eminently sensible statement. Perhaps Asea was right about this man after all. He certainly hoped she was. Weasel nodded and said; “Aye, not by much, but by enough.”

“Your Lords are not the only ones Ilmarec has been talking with. That strutting ponce, Jaderac has been up in the Snake Tower, and so has his little girlfriend, the one who likes to hang out in bars and pick up soldiers.” He nodded at Rik at this point.

“Likes a bit of rough, does she?” asked the Barbarian with a leer. “I wondered where you had got to the other night.”

He gave Rik a look that was half appraising and half admiring. “Wish I knew what your secret was with the ladies, Halfbreed.”

“Charm,” said Rik. “Not something you would know anything about.”

“What’s this about the Easterners being up in the Tower,” Weasel asked.

“They come and go with a bit less pomp than your Lady Asea, but they’ve been up there a few times.”

“Sure?” asked Weasel.

“As this tavern is the Snake’s Head.” It did not surprise Rik. The Terrarchs were political animals. It seemed only normal that Ilmarec would play both ends against the middle.

“Any idea what they talk about?”

“None at all. It’s hard to get men inside the Snake Tower on a regular basis. They tend to disappear. Old Ilmarec is a sorcerer- who knows what he is capable of — and then there are those gargoyles on the walls. They put the fear of the Shadow into my mind I can tell you.”

“You mean those things above the gates?” Rik asked.

“Aye, lad. Never met a man yet they did not spook.” The looks on the faces of the Barbarian and Weasel told him they agreed. He wondered what he had missed and how he had missed it. Maybe Asea was right about his background, or maybe it was something else entirely. There was no way of telling.

“Now supposing we wanted to get somebody through those gates,” said Weasel.

“Can’t be done. The Guardians spot everybody.”

“What about cart drivers?”

“They are counted in and counted out. All of them are regulars too, known to the guards. You are surely not serious about this.”

“Lady Asea said I should give you this,” said Rik suddenly. He took the gold piece from his pocket. Tomar smiled at the glint of gold but a strange look came over his face when he looked closer at the coin. Rik noticed him running his thumb over the edge where the indentations were. A glance told him that Weasel and the Barbarian had noticed all of this too.

“So the time has come, has it?” said Tomar.

“Yes,” said Rik, although he was not sure what the big man meant.

“This coin pays for all,” he said. “Then all the old debts are settled. Tell her Ladyship that.”

“I will. Now, assuming the Guardians of the Gate can be bypassed, is there any way into the Castle.”

“There’s always a way when you want something smuggled into or out of a place,” said Tomar. “Even the Tower.”

“Glad to hear it,” said Rik.

“There’s a catch,” said Tomar.

“What’s that?”

“Stuff can be smuggled in. Providing it’s not alive.”

“Great,” said Rik sardonically. “Tell me more.”

“Before I do, there is something else I should tell you about Lord Jaderac.”

“What about his high and mightiness?” Weasel asked.

“His servants talk- well they always do, don’t they? I reckon he is planning something against your lot soon. The servants are in fear of their lives and there’s tales of all manner of spooky stuff going on in that mansion.”

“Tell us more…”

“They say he has coffins in there — the eastern type- sarcophaguses they call them. They say he sleeps in one but I reckon that’s just talk, although you can never tell with some of the easterners.”

“What has that to do with the Lady Asea?” Rik asked.

“One of the girls overheard them talking, Jaderac and his bint, and he was saying he had something special in one of his coffins that would deal even with the great Lady Asea. The girl was scared near to death by the way they were talking. She refuses to go back to the house.”

“Just tittle-tattle,” said Weasel.

“Might be,” said Tomar. “I am just telling you what I heard, but Kara is a hill-girl and she does not frighten easily.”

“If you say so,” said Weasel. He looked at Rik. There was a question in his glance. He seemed to be looking to Rik for a cue.

“So shall we talk about how to get into the Tower?” Tomar asked. “I can get you drivers and we have a special cart that’s sometimes used to take stuff in. Impossible to get men in though. The demon always spots them.”

“There may be a way to deal with that.”

“Care to tell me how?”

Rik shook his head. “Tomorrow. We’d best be getting back. I suppose we’ll need to warn her Ladyship about this sorcerer.”

“It might be nothing,” said Tomar.

“It might be everything,” said Rik. “We’d better go.”

Already he felt uneasy, as if something might be waiting for them, outside in the dark.


Chapter Seventeen

<p>Chapter Seventeen</p>

“What is it?” Lady Asea asked, seeing his grim expression as Rik entered the chamber. He told her what the gang boss had said about Jaderac’s sorcery. She listened intently and said; “I suppose it’s only to be expected.”

“What do you intend to do about it?”

“There is not a great deal more I can do,” she said. “There are already wards and sentries in place. I have prepared my weapons and armour.” She gestured towards her travelling chests.

He noticed how tired she looked, and also a little hopeless, truth be told. He wondered what was wrong with her. He had never seen her like this before. He asked.

“It is the Tower, Rik,” she said. “It is possessed of a dark magic that oppresses me.”

“You could leave here.”

“And go back to the army?”

“Yes.”

“That would leave Jaderac in possession of the field and in a position to do what he wants unopposed. Besides, I am not without sorcerous resources myself.”

“All this talk of murderous magic unsettles me,” Rik said.

“That is understandable. However there is something else I want you to think about.”

“What would that be?”

She produced a set of maps from within one of her travelling chests. “These are maps of the interior of the Serpent Tower. Can you memorise them?”

Rik had memorised the plans of many mansions when he had been a burglar back in Sorrow. These were more complex than any he had committed to memory back then, but he knew that, if he was to have any chance of survival, he was going to need to learn them.

“I can try,” he said.

She gestured with her hand. “You can begin now.”

He looked at the maps. There were certain areas that indicated doorways, but there was nothing marked on the map beyond them.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“They were sealed ways. Ancient runes marked with Serpent Man Elder Signs blocked the way. It was thought that they could not be opened…”

“Thought?”

“I suspect Ilmarec found the key. It may have something to do with his new found power.”

“But you have no idea what was within?”

“We always suspected something was buried there.”

Rik thought of Uran Ultar and his people lodged deep in the darkness beneath Achenar.

“It’s a strange coincidence that Ilmarec should find the key to that even as the Spider God woke,” said Rik.

“It may be no coincidence.”

“What do you mean?”

“I think we are entering a new age of the world, Rik. I think old powers are stirring.”

“Why now?”

“I would give a lot to know the answer to that myself.”

Tonight was the night, Jaderac thought. The signal had come from his agent in the House of Three Swans. The half-breed youth had returned from the taverns and was in Asea’s chambers. There could be no mistake about that. His agent knew too well the price of failure. Tonight, once and for all, he would rid the Empire of one of its most dangerous enemies, and he would do it with her own weapon: with sorcery. Tonight Lady Asea of the First would die.

It would not be easy. Jaderac knew better than to delude himself about that. The Witch of the West was an even more formidable sorcerer than old Ilmarec and that was saying something. Most of the younger generation thought the First were merely second-rate wizards with first-rate reputations. Jaderac was not one to make that mistake. He knew exactly how competent Asea was. Fortunately she had not realised how far his own studies had come on since their last meeting. He was her equal now, perhaps even her superior- as tonight would prove.

He glanced around the laboratory. Tamara watched him like a cat, lazily but with a concealed, dangerous attention.

“I would not go out tonight if I were you. The streets will be dangerous.”

“You are ready to perform your ritual then.”

“The signal has been given. Tonight Lady Asea will die.”

“You seem very certain of that.”

“I have reason to be.” He gestured at the intricate mass of pipes and necro-mechanical arcanery, part flesh, part glass, part metal. Red blood pumped through the tubing connecting the flaccid still-living bodies to the great sarcophagus. Inside the coffin his creation stirred. He could feel it.

Tamara smiled at him. “You’ve really done it?”

He nodded. “It is ready to emerge from its chrysophagus.”

He untightened the screws that held the metal lid in place and slid it off to reveal the creature within. It looked like a very large man, hairless, grey-skinned. Its face was noseless like a skull. Instead of fingernails, it had talons. When its eyes opened they were a startling bloody red. The thing threw itself forward but the spells and the metal restraints held it — just. It opened its mouth and let out a hiss. Long fangs showed in its mouth. The blood from the kidnapped men continued to pump into its flesh. It seemed to grow larger and stronger as it did so, like a wineskin slowly being filled with fluid.

“A Nerghul,” she whispered.

“A Nerghul,” he said, savouring the word. The creature was as strong as ten men and all but invulnerable to magic or mortal weapons. It could rip a man apart with those talons, or tear off his head with its hands. It could run faster than the swiftest horse, and kill a bloodwyrm with its bare hands. It could see in the dark, and move so silently a cat could not hear it. It was an unholy hybrid of demon and animated corpse, a homunculus animated by a drachm of his own blood, and unholy rites performed during the dark of the moon.

“I confess I was not certain you could do this,” she said. Her voice was husky and her eyes held new respect. “Only a master of the dark arts can create these things.”

Jaderac had not been entirely certain of success when he had set out to do this. The creation of the creature within demanded the greatest of skill in his art. And there was still the matter of being able to control it when it emerged. Such a creature was incredibly dangerous even to its summoner.

“Lady Asea will die tonight,” he said. “Not all her sorcery can save her.”

He opened the containment jar and thin hair it contained. He waved it in front of the open hole where the Nerghul’s nose should have been, letting it catch the scent of its prey. A long tongue flickered out and pulled the hair into its mouth. It swallowed. It was ready. Its task had been set. The creature’s growling diminished. Something like a smile played across its face. It knew its purpose now. It would soon be time to release it.

“I would advise you to leave this chamber, Tamara,” Jaderac said.

“No,” she replied. “I want to watch this. I never realised anything could be so beautiful.”

Then you are even sicker than I suspected, thought Jaderac, then gave his full attention to the spells of compulsion he had woven into the creature’s brain. It would take all of his willpower to bind it, and then set it, like a hunting hawk, to seek its prey.

In the green-lit darkness, a thing of darkness walked. It moved like a man but there was nothing human left in it. It was dead but it was something more than an animated corpse. Dark energy saturated it, and it had a will of its own, and a desire. That desire was to kill. The scent, and something more than scent, of the one it was intended to slay filled what was left of its mind. Its desire was hunger and thirst and lust and love to it. It gave it purpose. It was its religion. The prey was to die and everyone with it. These were its commandments, given to it by its dark god.

It moved through the shadows swiftly, bounding over walls, moving along the branches of trees in gardens, crossing streets so swiftly that those who saw it doubted their senses. It was garbed in black and grey and it was easy to imagine that it was only a shadow.

It passed the fires where tired city watchmen sat sentry, and no one noticed it. It moved past the kennels of dogs that caught its scent and whimpered in their sleep. Once a massive hound, hungry and tormented by the scent of a passing cat, caught sight of it and sprang. The dark figure caught the dog in mid-leap, and twisted its neck, snapping it without breaking stride, and passed on.

It was getting closer to its goal. The scent both psychic and physical was stronger. It knew this was a sign of its prey’s presence, as simply and instinctually as a wolf knows it’s on the trail of deer. Ahead it sensed the presence of magic.

It lurked in the shadows of a doorway and studied the thick walls of the House of Three Swans. The gates were closed, but that did not matter, it would find a way in. With ears far keener than any mortal’s, it could hear the voices of sentries beyond the thick wooden gates.

It was not foolish. It knew the best way to reach its prey was not a headlong assault. It wanted to achieve its goal with a single-mindedness of purpose that any lover would have recognised and perhaps envied. It studied all the means of access to the house. It could see drain-pipes clinging to the side like ivy on an oak. In the street was a cart. That would be simplest.

For the Nerghul to think was to act. It raced forward across the street, silent as a stalking panther, swift as the cold breeze from the north. It leapt onto the back of the vehicle and sprang, leaping far higher than any mortal man could, easily reaching the bars attached to the second story window frame. It clung there for a moment, bent iron out of shape, and then it punched the shutters. Wood splintered. Such was the force of its blow that the shutters gave way despite being barred on the inside.

With an awful fluidity of motion the creature pulled itself up and in. As it crossed the threshold, pain, or what passed for pain in its world, took hold of it. Its skin burned and its senses reeled as it encountered a powerful sorcerous barrier. For a moment, it tottered, its mind on fire, its senses overloaded, but then it fell forward and through whatever magic threatened to stop it.

It was inside.

It was not alone. In a large four-poster bed were two soldiers and three servant girls bundled together and naked. One of the soldiers shouted something and reached beside the bed. It raced forward and broke a woman’s neck with a swift blow. Another it caught up and hurled clean across the room and through the window. Her scream ended in an abrupt crunching of bones as she hit the ground below.

One of the men had a bayonet in his hand. He stabbed swiftly. The creature caught the weapon, ignoring the way the blade sliced its flesh. Its punch snapped the man’s neck. The second soldier brought a pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. Smoke billowed and sparks flew. A bullet buried itself in the Nerghul’s flesh. The force of the impact almost jolted it from its feet but with super-human agility it managed to maintain its balance.

It brought down the bayonet and smashed the man across the face with the pommel. He fell as if pole-axed. The remaining woman had rolled from the bed and was trying to get herself under it. The creature stamped down, breaking her spine, and moved on.

It sensed the nearness of its prey. The scent was much stronger now. It still had the advantage of surprise. It would have to move swiftly to accomplish its goal. It felt no sense of urgency, no fear, no panic. It was close to consummation of its purpose. It need only proceed. The smell of burning reached it. An oil lamp had overturned and the hangings on the bed had caught fire. That did not matter. In the dim part of its mind that made calculations, it realised that the fire might aid it by spreading panic and confusion.

It turned the handle of the door and stepped out into the empty corridor. The scent grew stronger still.


Chapter Eighteen

<p>Chapter Eighteen</p>

“What was that?” Asea asked. To Rik’s ear the sound of shutters being forced and a window being broken in was unmistakable.

“We’re under attack,” said Rik. “Someone’s breaking in.” Then the screams started. There was the sound of a shot. Rik wondered who in hell would be mad enough to try and burgle a place like this, for that’s what this had to be, some second story man making an entrance.

“Stand away from the door,” Asea said. After Rik obeyed, she stepped forward and muttered a charm of some sort. Nothing appeared different, but Rik felt the hairs lift on the back of his neck. She finished and stepped backwards, studying the door like an artisan contemplating his handiwork.

“What did you do?”

“A binding spell. Something just came through the wards, something very powerful.”

“A demon?”

“Perhaps a demon bound in mortal form. If Jaderac is behind this, his technique has improved greatly.”

“Could it be Ilmarec?” Rik asked.

“If he wanted us dead he would just turn the green light on this mansion. He knows where we are.”

“Perhaps he wants to put the blame on someone else?”

“I see you are starting to think like a Terrarch,” she said.

“Like a Sorrow thief,” he said and added quietly. “There may be less difference than you would think.”

He checked his weapons. He still had his pistol and his bayonet strapped to his leg. They felt inadequate compared to the magnitude of the threat that might be out there. His experience with demons in Deep Achenar told him that.

Asea touched the lock of a chest and it flicked open, revealing something leathery. She pulled it out and Rik recognised her armour. He remembered the complexity of it, and wondered how she was going to get it on. She merely stepped into the one-piece leather suit, pulled it up, put her arms into the sleeves and spoke a word of command. The thing unfurled around her, snapping into place and leaving no sign of buttons or fasteners. That was a useful property, he thought.

She pulled her rune-embossed blade from the trunk as well, and strapped it on. Finally she took out a crystal globe. It glowed blue and something flickered inside its transparent shell like captured lightning.

“Don’t come between me and the door,” she said. Rik strode to the other side of the room and checked his pistol.

“I’ll do my best,” he said.

The Nerghul stepped out into the corridor and found itself confronted by two soldiers. They carried muskets. One of them raised his weapon and prepared to fire. Before he could pull the trigger, the undead creature seized the barrel of the weapon and tore it from his grasp. It reversed the motion and smashed the butt into his face. The soldier screamed as his nose broke and his teeth splintered.

His fellow pulled the trigger, but the Nerghul sprang to one side and the bullet tore down the hallway. It took the musket it held and poked him with the barrel. The metal ruptured flesh and smashed through internal organs till it came out the other side, the muzzle full of meat and blood.

The Nerghul felt strong sorcery flicker into existence near it and knew in the very core of its being that it was within reach of what it sought. The magic came from the same direction as the scent of its prey. It did not care. No barrier could stand between it and its target now.

Sardec heard the shots ring out and dropped his book. An attack? Now? This had come from inside the building. He reached for his pistol. The most likely possibility was treachery, someone had either been paid to let strangers into the house or they had infiltrated the place in the guise of a servant.

He opened his door and stepped out into the corridor. Already more of the Foragers were moving past. Sergeant Hef, the Barbarian and Weasel were there. The Barbarian had his hill-man knife out. Weasel had a throwing knife in one hand and a pistol in the other.

“What’s going on, Sergeant?” Sardec asked.

“No idea, sir, but whatever it is, it’s on this floor.”

Sardec did the calculations in his mind. He was not being attacked, and he was not the most likely target anyway.

“To the Lady Asea’s chambers,” he said. “I think we have an assassin in our midst.”

No one asked any questions, they simply fell into step behind him. He was suddenly very glad to have such men there.

Rik heard nothing until the door started to bulge inwards and that frightened him. His ears were keen and he knew how stealthy someone would have to be to baffle them. He pointed his pistol towards the door and kept his finger on the trigger.

The way the door bent was unnatural. Wood should not have distended like that and still held together. It should have splintered apart long ago. The thing pushing against it must be unbelievably strong. A man could not be doing this. Images of demons danced through Rik’s mind. He tried unsuccessfully to force them away.

The cowl of Asea’s armour had now covered her head. Part of it covered her lower face too. Only the upper part of her face was visible and it was covered by a silver mask and looked almost as demonic as the things he imagined. The crystal sphere seemed to be rotating in her hand.

“I do not think my spell is going to hold much stronger. Azella’s Tears! This beast is strong.” The note of fear in her voice frightened Rik more than the images in his head.

The Nerghul pushed against the door and the spell that thwarted it. The power held it at bay far more than the flimsy material itself but only one more push was needed. The tingling in its palms where it felt the flow of energy merely encouraged it to greater efforts. The door began to give way.

Sardec came round the corner and halted at once. He saw a tall humanoid figure dressed in black and grey. Blood dyed part of its clothing. Gobbets of flesh stuck to its body. A strange smell of blood and death filled the air. It lunged at the doorway. Beyond the monster, Karim sprang into the corridor. A bright blade glittered in his hand.

Rik watched the door break apart. It splintered into a thousand pieces, all exploding outwards. A large dark figure filled the doorway and before he could react, it was through, moving with eye-blurring speed towards Asea. He brought the pistol to bear and pulled the trigger. More by luck than judgement, the bullet hit the thing, knocking its leap off-course.

Asea hurled the glittering crystal in her hand, catching the creature on the breast. The sphere exploded in a cloud of ozone and brilliant unchained power. It flickered all around the attacker and penetrated its flesh. The unleashed energy hurtled it towards the ceiling, elevated by a ladder of lightning. The intruder dropped to the floor, stinking of burning flesh.

For a moment Rik thought it was all over, but then the thing started to move again, like a creature in a nightmare, hoisting itself upwards on two hands, rising to its feet and moving towards Asea. It had a skeletal, noseless face that swung to and fro. He heard it sniff, as if trying to catch a scent.

Patches of its clothing had burned away, and bits of skin with it, revealing not flesh but a strange amalgam of bone and burned, blackened tissue along with something else, that looked like nothing he had ever seen before. It resembled the innards of a machine, a watch or clock perhaps, if those mechanisms had been carved from bone and powered by valves and ligaments of rotting flesh. There was no blood, only strange blackish pus.

As the creature rose, Karim came into the room. He was a blur of motion, impossibly swift. His blade passed right through the creature, pinning it to the floor. With an awful wheezing sound, as if air was being forced from dead lungs, the creature pushed itself upright again, lashing out at the bodyguard. Karim ducked, ripped his blade free and struck again, slashing the thing’s chest. It ignored the strike and lashed back. Blows blurred the air between them, so swift that Rik could barely follow them. Then suddenly it was over. A claw connected and Karim dropped in his tracks.

Asea lunged forward, slamming her own runeblade into the thing’s chest. The razor edge parted rotting flesh. The intruder reached for Asea and got its hands round her neck. The armour there went rigid as if taking an awful strain. The Elder signs on her throat pulsed to life. Smoke emerged from the thing’s fingers. Rik hurled himself at the creature, aiming his bayonet at a spot in its back that would carry the blade through to the heart if the creature had one. He was not sure that would make the slightest difference. He suspected the thing was already dead.

The Nerghul felt a weight land on its back, knocking it off balance. The scent of its prey was overwhelming. It loosened one hand from the witch’s throat and reached backward. It felt resistance of a strange subtle sort. It turned its head instinctively but could not see. The blazing light from the witch’s sphere still dazzled its eyes.

Something else baffled its soul sight, telling it nothing was there, even as its fingers encountered evidence to the contrary. Something sharp sliced at its hand. It felt its fingers drop away, along with the burden of weight. The smell of the prey was even stronger.

Something strange was going on here. It was under attack but could not quite sense from what. Using its arm as a bludgeon, it swept the air where the attacker should be. Once more the Nerghul felt resistance as its fist hit home.

It lifted its taloned fingers to its nose hole and sniffed. There was no doubt about it. The stench of its prey was on them. It knew then that its target was there. It began sniffing again, knowing that the scent would lead it to what it sought. It would kill it, and deal with the witch in a moment.

The force of the impact sent Rik flying across the room to smash into the wall. The creature hit with a force like the kick of a destrier. Momentary blackness crossed his field of vision. Stars danced before his eyes. Sharp pain filled his lungs and chest. His knife had fallen from his hand, frantically he felt for it. The creature was sniffing again, its head tracking backwards and forwards as it advanced slowly towards him.

Asea’s fingers danced frantically through a pattern, drawing a symbol of light in the air. Swirls of light emerged from the symbol and stabbed into the attacker. It flinched, and she kicked out with one foot, her strength enhanced by the strange magic of her armour. The attacker’s knee gave way with a crack of bone.

A shout of rage told Rik that his companions had arrived. The Barbarian came through the door like an unleashed thunderbolt, surging across the room and thrusting his blade into the creature’s back with enough force to drive it through its chest and out the other side. Their assailant tried to ignore him and get to Rik, but the Barbarian pulled his sword free and cleaved at its neck.

“Die, bastard thing of darkness,” he shouted.

The creature turned to survey its new assailants.

A knife flew across the room and took the thing through the eye. Weasel’s casting was as good as ever, but a throw that would have killed an ordinary man did not even slow this creature down.

The Barbarian kept hacking. His blade severed the attacker’s neck tearing through ropes of flesh and cables of muscle. The intruder lashed out at him. An ordinary man would have been caught full in the face by that sledgehammer blow but the Barbarian twisted aside at the last moment and took it on his shoulder. Even so, the force of it sent him spinning.

Sardec fired his pistol. The bullet smashed into the creature. It toppled sideways. Asea pulled herself upright and hacked at its head. Somehow it kept going, reaching out with its slashed fingerless hand and intercepting the blade. Its other hand closed on her and pulled her from her feet.

Sardec sprang forward, burying his hook into the flesh of the creature’s neck and wrenching with all his might. The flesh came free with a sickly, ripping sound.

The Nerghul knew it had taken too much damage. In another few moments it might be beaten, and thus fail in its quest. It could not allow that to happen. It needed to escape. It needed to find a dark place to hide and heal. It cast the metal-handed foe from it and sprang for the door. The man waiting there sprang to one side to let it pass. It scuttled as quickly as its battered body would let it up the corridor, heading back the way it came, looking for the open window that would let it vanish into the night.

“What was that thing?” Sardec asked.

“A Nerghul,” said Asea. “A creature of necromancy, vat-grown from reanimated corpses.”

“What was it doing here?”

“Seeking to kill me most likely,” she said.

“Someone certainly wanted you dead,” said Sardec. “I don’t think we need look too far to find the culprit. The question is what do we do now?”

Rik glanced at Asea, wondering whether she would want him to go after Jaderac and Tamara. She shook her head almost imperceptibly. She obviously was keen for him to get on with carrying out her plan.

“You think this thing will be back, milady?” asked Weasel.

“Not tonight,” she said. “But I think it will return some other night.”

“Will there be any more of these things, milady,” the Barbarian, of all people, asked. It seemed far too sensible a question to come from him.

“I don’t know,” said Asea. “I would not think so, not soon anyway. Creating and animating such a creature has an enormous cost, not only in alchemical materials but on the strength of the creator. I doubt we shall see anything like this any time soon.”

“May the Light grant it be so,” said Sardec. “It managed to get right into your chambers before it was stopped.”

Rik wondered if there was a note of reproach in his voice. He supposed Sardec had reason to wonder. Asea had seemed very certain that her wards would protect this place. If she could be wrong about that, what else could she be wrong about?

“At least it was stopped,” said Asea. “I am grateful to you all for that.”

“You may, of course, have my room, milady. I will have some of the men remove my gear and bring yours up.”

“I would appreciate it if you would leave now,” she said. “I am grateful for your help.”

“I am going to redouble the sentries,” said Sardec.

“I want to see you after my gear has been moved, Rik,” she said, just as he reached the door. The Barbarian gave him a look full of envy.

“As you wish, milady,” he said.

Karim stirred on the floor. Asea bent to inspect his wounds.

“What did you wish to speak of Lady Asea?” Rik asked. The change of rooms was done. The fire on the second floor was under control. A bruised Karim stood guard outside the door.

He noticed the maps of the Tower on the table and thought he understood. She shook her head slightly.

“That creature almost killed us tonight, Rik,” she said.

“Almost,” he said. “But you are safe now.”

She paused. “There was a moment when it could have taken me,” she said. “I was stunned and defenceless. It did not attack me. It sniffed the air as if looking for prey.”

“You are saying my blood protected me again,” said Rik.

“Perhaps it did, but that is not what I am saying.” Rik considered her words for a moment, looking for the implications. Suddenly, they struck him.

“You are saying it was looking for me,” he said.

“Yes, Rik, I am.”

“But why?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Somehow it has your scent.”

Another terrifying thought occurred to him. Was Asea looking at him with suspicion? That could be as fatal to him as the Nerghul.

“How could it have that? I have not been consorting with any sorcerers.”

“I don’t know. A clipping of your hair, a drachm of your blood. Some article intimately associated with you. There are lots of things that could give it your spoor.”

Rik thought about his evening with Tamara. The shock he felt must have been written on his face.

“What, Rik?” Asea said. Now did not seem like a good time to tell her about what had been said during that particular adventure.

“Nothing,” he said. “I am simply not too thrilled by the thought that such a thing could be hunting me.”

“You should not be, Rik. It will never stop until you are dead.”

“What harm can it do me now?” he asked. “We almost killed it tonight.”

“It is a creature of sorcery, Rik. It will heal very quickly and it will learn from its mistakes. Next time, you might not be so lucky.”

“Next time?”

“There will be a next time, Rik, make no mistake about it.”

Rik nodded. “I had better study these plans,” he said. “Being inside the Serpent Tower is starting to look better than being outside it.”

“It’s nothing to joke about, Rik.”

“Who says I am joking?”


Chapter Nineteen

<p>Chapter Nineteen</p>

Rik lay on his pallet in the barracks and stared at the ceiling. He was not able to concentrate on the maps he had memorised. He had been restless all night; his sleep constantly interrupted by images of what he had seen when the Nerghul had been cut open. It had been like slicing an apple and seeing worms and rot inside. The thing had looked human but it was not, and it was one of those things that made him wonder. He sometimes had the sense that reality was but a thin skin over the horrible truth of the universe. This night's encounter reinforced that idea.

He had always thought himself human, or at least half-human in every sense that mattered, but if what Asea had told him was true, that was not the case. He, too, was something that looked human but was not. He was a killer descended from a race of killers.

The worst of it was that he did not have any trouble believing it was so. He had always felt different from those around him, had always known he was colder and more calculating. Now it seemed that there might have been a reason for that. He was different. He was intended to be so, to be something monstrous.

He told himself that he was just trying to distract himself from deeper worries. He could so easily have been killed last night. His bruised ribs told him so. Other people had died, and if he had been just a fraction slower, he might have joined them in death. Asea could have died. His friends could have died too.

And the thing that had done the killing was still at large. It would come back looking for him soon. Perhaps it was waiting out there now. No. Asea had told him that by daylight he was safe; such creatures could not bear the light of the sun. After nightfall, though, it would be a different matter.

What sort of person would make a creature like the Nerghul, he wondered? Who could have stood aside and watched such a thing come into being. Who would deliberately set out to create one?

In a way, the answer was obvious; the sorcerers of the Dark Empire. But it was one thing to think such a thing; it was another entirely to encounter such deadly evidence of it at first hand. Nerghuls really existed. They were not figments of a diseased imagination or inhabitants of some cheap chapbook story. They walked this earth.

And somewhere out there was the person who had created the creature, and used it to try and kill Asea and himself and the other people he knew. He had his suspicions that Tamara was involved. He did not like to believe that he was so stupid that he could have been taken in by a pretty face a third time- but why not? Sabena had made an idiot out of him. Rena had made a fool of him. Tamara could easily be the third in a set of three. At least Rena had not conspired to have him killed, as the other two had done.

His head spun when he thought about it. Tamara had told him Asea was a traitor to her people. She had asked him to kill Asea. Asea had said that Tamara was a deadly enemy of the kingdom where he had grown up, and oppressor to all his kind. She had wanted him to kill Tamara.

Somewhere in all their words was perhaps a kernel of truth, or perhaps it was all a lie. The question he had to answer for himself was not who to believe, for he believed they were all lying to him, but what he was going to do about it. He needed to get to a place where he had some control over his life, and that was going to be as difficult as scaling the slippery walls of the Tower of the Serpent.

It appeared that Tamara may have wanted him dead all along. Why? It did not make sense. If she had wanted him dead she could have managed it back in the Snake’s Head. He supposed there would have been witnesses. She might have got caught. He might have been able to stop her. This way there was no risk to her.

As so often with him, anger flared alongside the fear. He felt the urge to seek out the sorcerer and kill him before he could strike again. He told himself that his thoughts were insane, that such a course of action would lead to his own destruction, but he could not help his feelings or prevent the idea from entering his mind that perhaps, in some ways, he was not sane. Perhaps a murderous insanity had been bred into his bones.

What a world it was, he thought. What kind of god would create a place like this? Certainly not the god he had been taught to believe in at the orphanage. That stern, just, loving god would not have made this strange sick place his creation. The thought made him angry. He had been lied to all his life, starting back before he was in any position to realise it. He was being lied to still, by people who had their own good reasons for wanting to keep him from the truth.

Perhaps, after all, the best thing he could do was desert, slip away into the night, and get as far from this place as he could. But then again, the Nerghul would be waiting for him, and that was not something he wanted to face on his own. With the whole company and Lady Asea around him he had only just survived. He would have had no chance on his own. Staying looked like his only option but staying meant doing what Asea wanted and sneaking into the Serpent Tower.

He laughed cynically. Under the circumstances it really might just be the best place for him. At least the Nerghul would not be able to get him there. Such was his horror of the thing, that the thought seemed almost sensible. Almost he would prefer certain death in the Tower to facing the Nerghul again.

There were other things to consider. Stealing into the Tower and doing what Asea asked there might — just might — bring him an enormous reward. It was a gamble against very long odds, but it was one he found himself increasingly willing to take.

What use was his life to anybody, least of all himself? All he had to look forward to as a soldier was a short career that would most likely end with him as a crippled beggar. If he ran and became a thief, the chances were that eventually he would end up the same way at best, and dangling from the end of a rope at worst. There was no one who would miss him for longer than it took to drink the toast at his wake. He was getting self-pitying, he knew, which he hated so he pushed those thoughts aside.

He considered the Tower. It was a challenge to his skill, one that would most likely prove beyond it, but that appealed to his vanity in a strange way. If he walked away now, he would never know what he was capable of, whether he could defy the power of an ancient race and one of the greatest sorcerers of the Terrarchs. This was his chance to become a wealthy hero. It meant risking his life but then he did that on the battlefield whenever the regiment marched to war. He could be killed by a stray bullet in the street tomorrow, or in his bed by a Nerghul tonight, if the creature returned.

He knew then, as that thought sidled into his head, that his mind was made up. He would risk the Tower, and rescue the Princess if he could. Weasel and the Barbarian loomed over him.

“We’re off to see our friendly local fence,” said Weasel. “We’re to make sure everything you need is ready. Her Ladyship wants to see you. Looks like tonight’s the night for whatever she is planning.”

Rik’s heart skipped a beat. Too soon, he thought. Too soon.

Sardec drank his morning tea. He was angry and not a little shocked. Jaderac, and he was sure it was Jaderac, had dared to use the foulest of sorcery against the person he was supposed to protect. The Nerghul was a creature of the vilest kind, created by the darkest magic. He had not needed Asea’s explanations to realise that. He had seen the thing with his own eyes.

It had killed two of his men, and some of the camp followers within the walls of this very townhouse. It has almost killed him and Asea and the others. He felt like storming off to Jaderac’s mansion, spitting in his face and challenging him to a duel, but he had no proof. Jaderac could simply deny the charge and there was nothing he could do about it except be killed in a duel in which the Easterner would have choice of weapons. That would not keep Asea safe or let him perform his duty. He swore to the Light that if he got the chance he would get even with Jaderac though.

He wondered if Lord Azaar had got his letter yet, telling of the power of the green light. Doubtless that would cause a sensation in the camp. His next missive concerning the Nerghul would cause a greater stir. It was the first evidence of what they had all suspected, that the Easterners were prepared to use the most despicable of magic in the pursuit of their goals.

For the first time he paused to consider that Talorea really might lose this war. He believed with some certainty that the Scarlet armies were better trained, better motivated and better equipped than their Purple opponents, but that was only part of the story. Such magic as the Easterners possessed might well tip the battle in their favour. If they were prepared to use necromancy, then they would be able to send Nerghul assassins and field regiments of the walking dead against the armies of the West. Would his own men stand their ground in the face of such things?

Sardec believed the answer was yes. They had held their ground beneath Deep Achenar in the face of Elder World horrors. They had stood firm in the face of the Nerghul last night. In both cases they had bought victory with their own blood, and his people were not without their own magic. Who knew what Asea was capable of when she put her mind to it?

None of this was getting him anywhere and there were matters at hand that needed his fullest attention. He needed to make sure the defences were reinforced, that the sentries were redoubled. He had sent Corporal Toby off to find a supply of truesilver bullets. They would be handed out to every man. The money would have to come from his own pocket, but it would be worth it. He intended to see that they were properly prepared if another creature of darkness came at them out of the night.

He glanced up at the Tower. A greenish glow flowed through its walls, dimly visible even in the daylight. Its ominous spire glared down at them; reminding him that there was nothing at all he could do, if Ilmarec decided to sweep them from the face of the earth. Something was going to have to be done about that but for the life of him, he could not think what.

Rik looked up from the maps. He was sick and tired of studying them, of running over all the details of the preparations for the attempt on the Tower. And he was nervous now that the event was almost on top of them. Weasel and the Barbarian had been dispatched to finalise the preparations with Black Tomar. If all went well, he would be making the attempt on the Tower today. It seemed too soon, but they had run out of time. None of his arguments swayed Asea. She feared the build-up of power within the Tower. The effort had to be made now, before Ilmarec got a chance to carry out his threat against Azaar’s army.

Asea had chosen to entrust Weasel and the Barbarian with some of the secrets of the mission. Even though she had made it clear to them that the threat of the Inquisition hung over their heads too, Rik was not sure he liked that. He told himself that they were reliable, that it was just his ingrained habit of secrecy that made him nervous about it, but it did not help. His nerves were badly on edge. He wanted a distraction, any distraction.

“What was that thing last night — really?” Rik asked Asea. He was still troubled by what he had seen, and that made him curious.

“It was a Nerghul,” she said, staring at the collection of items that lay on top of a silk sheet in front of her.

“That helps,” he said. “I already knew the name. If only I knew what a Nerghul was, I would be fully informed.”

“Curiosity about such things is an error,” she said. He considered this. He was tired, and he was short tempered, but it would not do to forget himself in her presence.

“Please indulge me, milady. I want to understand a little about the thing that almost killed me.”

“You would do better to concentrate on those maps, and the nature of the compounds I have provided you with.”

“If I do not know these things by now, I never will.”

She sighed. “Nerghul are creations of the darkest sort of necromantic sorcery. Grown from the tissue of corpses, mingled with essences drained from certain demons and the blood of humans and Terrarch. They grow in vats of alchemicals, saturated with energies created by sorcerous engines.”

He asked the question that was on his mind. “How do you kill it?”

“You can’t. It’s already dead.”

“How would I stop it then, end its existence?”

“Very strong magic. Enormous amounts of damage. Fire usually harms things of darkness, particularly those that cannot stand the light. Truesilver would help. It would disrupt the flow of necromantic energy through its body. The truth is, though, that Nerghuls are very difficult to stop.”

“There must be some way.”

“Some grimoires, Pusad’s Treatise on the Hounds of Shadow, for one, claim you could stop them by sawing off their heads. It would not break the enchantment, but since the intelligence is in the brain, it would leave the body a mindless animated thing.”

“So all I have to do is ask it to lie down while I saw off its head? That sounds easy enough.”

“By implication, massive damage to the head might have a similar effect. It would have to almost destroy the skull, I would guess and even then it might not work.”

“Why?”

“Other grimoires claim the animation is provided by a dark spirit trapped in the corpse. If that’s the case, then beheading the creature would have very little effect at all.”

“Wonderful,” said Rik. “Those old books don’t seem terribly helpful.”

She smiled. “It’s often the way with such things. Sorcerers fumble in the dark, and write down as certainties what are, at best, theories.”

“So you’re saying that chopping off the head might have no effect whatsoever?”

She considered this. “The animating spirit would still be present but it would lose any mortal senses the head might provide.”

“It would be blind.”

“In one way, yes.”

“In another way, no. Am I right?”

“I have already told you, Rik, that demons see with other senses than the physical. They sense spirit and the flows of power.”

“But I might be invisible to that, if the rest of what you told me is true.”

“Very good, Rik. I see you have worked out a solution.”

“Only if I can convince a near invulnerable demon to lie down and let me perform surgery on it. It does not seem likely, does it?”

“No.”

“Who would create such a thing? How did they come to be? They strike me as being things that the Inquisition would forbid.”

“They are forbidden, Rik, at least in the West. They were originally created in the darkest period of Terrarch history, in the dying days of our civilization on Al’Terra when some of our sorcerers sought to use the methods of the Princes of Shadow against them.”

He considered this. It was information that was never mentioned in the scriptures or testaments, never taught in the schools, never mentioned in books, but he saw no reason to doubt her. She was, after all, the expert in such things.

“Even to me that does not seem the cleverest of plans,” he said, hoping to draw her out. Her hand toyed with one of the trinkets in front of her. She gazed into the mid-distance, remembering.

“It was not. Some of those who tried it were desperate, others merely wanted power and would do anything required to grasp it. There are always such ones in any time, but an age of chaos provides them with the excuse they need, and reasons they could not find in less dark times.”

Rik thought if that were the case, such men would be crawling out of the woodwork now. He supposed they were.

“Many sorcerers experimented with the darkest of arts, trying to find a way to overcome the Princes of Shadow. They created things like the Nerghuls and armies of the living dead to fight their wars for them. Some of them ended up joining their enemies, and became Princes themselves. But there were many who remained loyal to the Queen-Empress and still used their lore in evil ways, to fight fire with fire, they said. Such knowledge was preserved by them and their students and found its way to this world when we passed through the Eye of the Dragon. In the East there are many remote estates where the Lords can practise sorcery and no one asks any questions. Jaderac has just such an estate. I fear this and other forbidden lore will find its way to the battlefield in the coming war.”

“Why?” Rik asked.

“Because the world has changed. Gunpowder and alchemy have altered the old balance of power between man and Terrarch. In order to secure their rule in the new age, some Terrarchs will draw on ever more potent wells of forbidden lore. Even in the West I have had heard voices calling for it. In the East…they will have no qualms whatsoever about using whatever means necessary to secure their power.”

Rik considered her words. They contained a truth but it was not one he could ever imagine any Terrarch enunciating. He said as much.

“We are not fools, Rik. We are arrogant and used to power but we can tell from which direction the wind blows. Some of us can see that sooner or later we are going to have to reach a new accommodation with the race of man that recognises the way the balance of power has shifted. A new, more democratic age will come whether we like it or not. It is best to acknowledge that fact.”

“It seems that the Purples do not agree with that assessment.”

“You would be surprised, Rik. You would be very surprised. Many of them agree with almost everything I have said.”

“What do you mean?”

“They agree with my diagnosis but not my cure. They think that the best way to deal with the threat that men represent is to use all our power, and all our forbidden knowledge to enslave them now. I think before the end, the Purples will decide that the preservation of Terrarch civilisation justifies the use of powers we would not dare use otherwise.”

Rik studied her, trying to work out how much she was attempting to manipulate him, but as always he could not tell. She appeared to believe what she was saying, and he could understand the sense of it.

Of course, the rich and the powerful would attempt to hold onto power by whatever means necessary. He would do the same if he were in their position. The question was whether he would use something like the Nerghul.

He simply did not have the experience to say. He had not enjoyed centuries of privilege, and he was in no great danger of losing such privilege, for he had never had it. He did not find it difficult to believe that the Terrarchs would stoop to using whatever tools were needed to hold power. They had shown themselves willing enough to do so in the past. The thing that truly surprised him was that Asea considered their position so vulnerable.

All his life Terrarch rule has simply been there, a fact, a thing as omnipresent as the air he breathed. The evidence was everywhere: their monumental palaces, their mighty fortresses, the statues of their heroes and wizards and dragons that surrounded him.

Perhaps, after all, those were a symbol of their weakness, not their strength, an attempt to intimidate as much by symbolic power as by real power. Even as part of him considered it ludicrous, another part of him was excited by the concept that it might be true. He thought of the vast military parades, the shows of sorcery, the preachings of priests, the flights of dragons. All of them were designed to remind humanity of the source of Terrarch power, and yet why were such reminders constantly necessary?

Possibly because by reminding the populace of their power, the Terrarchs ensured they did not need to use it. Their subjects were too intimidated to rebel. Even so, rebellions happened. Rik had fought against the Clockmaker and his followers. Was it possible, as Asea was suggesting, that the world was on the verge of a huge change, that man and Terrarch might really find their relative positions realigned? She looked at him and smiled subtly as if she could read the thoughts racing in his mind.

“There is something else you need to consider, Rik.”

“What’s that?”

“The Dark Empire actually possesses the power to enslave your people. The cost would be terrible, but they might manage it.”

“You really think they will try?”

“Desperate people do desperate things, Rik.” He had enough experience of the hardships of life to know exactly how true that was. So, it seemed, had she.

“Where are your friends?” she asked. “They should be back from seeing the thief king by now?”

“Why are you doing this?” he asked. The question simply forced itself from his lips.

“I need your help,” she said. It sounded like an honest answer, but once again, he was certain it was not all of the truth. The desperation in her eyes and in her voice seemed real but…

Rik could see the sense of that, and something of its cynical pragmatism appealed to him. “I am just one more tool to you then?”

“As I am to you, Rik. I prefer to think of us as allies.”

“The balance of power makes it a somewhat one-sided alliance.”

“It’s often the way with alliances, Rik. Talorea has alliances with many of the nobles of Kharadrea. Our armies are far larger than theirs and Talorea is a far greater power, but yet such alliances are necessary, and in some places the balance of power may be tipped far in the favour of the one who seems the lesser power.”

Rik saw immediately what she was getting at. “As with Lord Ilmarec, you mean?”

“Exactly.”

“Why not offer him whatever he wants?”

“Don’t you think I have already tried, Rik. I suspect that what he wants is beyond our power to give.”

“But the Sardeans can offer it?”

“I doubt they can either, to be honest.”

“Why? What is it he wants?”

“You might be surprised to learn that he wants to be left alone. He wants the same for his country.”

“Is that all?” Rik was surprised. He could not imagine that was all any Terrarch would ask for, if he held the balance of power between two great nations.

“It’s more than either side can allow, Rik. We need Kathea. Without her, our entire Kharadrean strategy collapses. She is the legitimate Queen, as well as the one who would support us. Justice is on our side.”

Rik stared at her. “Please spare me the platitudes.”

“It may be a platitude, Rik, but it’s also the truth. And a greater truth is that unless we win the coming war, life will become very harsh indeed for your people.”

Rik wondered if at first she had made a miscalculation reminding him of his human heritage. She had been promising him acceptance from the Terrarchs. Perhaps it was a threat, that without her help the humans would always be his people.

Or perhaps she simply knew him better than he realised, for he suspected that even if he was accepted into a Terrarch clan, the humans would always be his people, to the Terrarchs and more importantly to himself. His sympathies would always lie on that side of the fence. Or maybe she meant something else entirely. Maybe she was simply referring to the nation of Talorea and its people. Things would not go well for them, he realised, if they were conquered by the Dark Empire.

A question he had to ask himself was, did he care? His upbringing on the streets of Sorrow told him the best thing was simply to look out for himself, to grab what he could get, and pay only as much attention as was profitable to the upcoming struggle.

He was surprised to find within himself not just rage, but a rage for justice. Part of him was concerned with the greater situation, even if it was only to resent the Terrarch dominance of the world. Even there, he suspected, he might be doing himself a disservice. A part of him wanted a better world, a fairer world, and not just for himself.

He smiled. Maybe it was just that he realised that without a better world for all, a better world for himself was unlikely. In this world, wherever he went, whatever he did, he was always going to be an outsider. He was never going to be safe or secure. Things would have to change, and he would have to do his part to change them.

“When will you start teaching me how to use magic?”

“If you survive your trip to the Tower.”

“Don’t you think teaching me something before then might help me survive?”

“It would if I could, Rik, but magic is not something you can learn in a few minutes like the words of a song, or the name of a thing. It takes months to even begin to understand the basic principles and that is an amount of time we don’t have.”

“What do we have?”

“We have these maps of the inside of the Tower — have you memorised them?”

He looked at the papers she indicated with one long, perfectly manicured finger, at the small maps of the Tower’s interior, segmented by level. These were much more beautiful than the sorts of sketch maps he had become used to as a burglar, but they were the same sort of thing. He was sick of the question and let his weariness show in his reply. “Yes.”

“Is there anything else you think you will need?”

“The livery of one of the Tower servants might be useful, or the uniform of a Tower Guard.”

Asea nodded thoughtfully. “That should not be too difficult to procure.”

He considered. “Weapons, a spidersilk line and a grapnel, preferably one warded by concealment spells. I own one, it’s in my gear.”

“You are obviously the right man for this job.”

“Let us hope so. I doubt we will be getting a second chance.”

“It might be best to avoid anything ensorcelled,” said Asea. “The Watchers on the gates are extraordinarily sensitive to magic, and if the spells are not good enough…”

She did not need to finish that sentence.

Rik left Asea’s chamber dissatisfied. He was going to be putting his life on the line, and soon. Granted he was going to be doing something he had done before, breaking into a heavily guarded location, but he could not help but think he had never attempted a theft as daring as this one, or gone into a place so well protected.

What was Asea not telling him about it? There were too many secrets here, and too much danger. Surely there must be something the Realm could offer Ilmarec. Even a sorcerer so mighty could not be mad enough to believe he could defy the Queen’s will forever, could he?

Perhaps he could. Queen Arielle could ill afford to expend the manpower needed to take the Serpent Tower by storm, if that were even possible. But without control of the Tower, and of Morven and Princess Kathea, the war was lost. If worst came to the worst Azaar might have no other option but to attempt to storm the place or to return home. Rik could not see the famous General expending his troops on so mad a venture as that. And without Kathea they had no figurehead to rally the Kharadrean nobles behind. Khaldarus would get his throne by default.

It was certainly a puzzle. He considered again his own options. His life was at risk, but if Asea kept her promise, from his point of view the rewards would be commensurate with the stake. The thought that he was missing something important nagged away at him. There must be something he could do to move the odds in his favour. There must be some advantage he could gain. Surely there must be an easier way to get himself inside the Tower.

He glanced up at the awful structure, with its glass-smooth walls and its aura of Elder world horror. How could he set himself against that and its master. How could he succeed where countless others had failed? The words of his one-time master, Koralyn, came back to him. There is no such thing as impregnable mansion, boy. There’s always a path between a thief and a treasure. You just have to find it. Of course the old master thief had been caught and hanged.

Just then Weasel and the Barbarian entered the courtyard. Weasel lifted his hand in the Thieves Sign that told him everything was arranged. It looked like he would be going in today. It would be best that way, less time for anyone else to discover their plans. He wondered at the wisdom of letting those two know even part of the plan but there had been no way around it. They knew Tomar and he knew them, and there had been just too many things for him to do himself.

Fear grabbed his guts and twisted and no matter how hard he tried, it simply would not let go.


Chapter Twenty

<p>Chapter Twenty</p>

Rik lay in the secret area of the cart beneath the piles of salted beef carcasses. The smell of meat filled his nostrils. It felt as if fatty residues were clinging to his skin and hair. He held his breath for as long as he could and then breathed shallowly to try and avoid taking in the overpowering stink.

In his mind’s eye it was difficult not to picture the Tower looming closer and the gaze of the strange gargoyles about to fall on him. He tried to keep calm, to avoid thoughts of what would happen to him if he was caught. The best he could hope for if he was found out was to be shot as a spy, the worst was torture and bizarre sorcery.

He cursed his own folly for agreeing to do this. All the reasons that had seemed so clear and strong earlier now simply seemed like folly; his anger with Rena, his fear of Asea and the Nerghul, his lust for wealth and position, his desire to prove himself. The only thing he was about to prove was that he was an idiot. He stifled the surge of self-pity.

It was not too late to change his mind, he told himself. All he had to do was tell the drivers he could not go through with it. He could run off down the hill and hope no one on the wall would shoot him. Of course, then he would have to deal with Asea’s vengeance and the consequences of his previous actions at Achenar, and he would need to elude the Nerghul too.

Every turn of the wheel, every bump in the road, took him closer to those glassy walls and the sentries on them. Worse, it took him closer to being within the tower itself. Those walls were the jaws of the trap. Once inside, he was committed irrevocably. He was doomed if he was caught and he was entirely on his own. There would be peril at every step.

As ever, he felt fear, but the old excitement had started to flow too. He would be inside the Tower, where it would be death if he was caught. What of it, the thief of Sorrow thought? That was the way it had always been. The penalties had never been any less when he burgled the mansions of the rich. The reward of the captured thief was always the same. He was doing something he had done for much of his life, and something he was very good at.

His heart raced, but now it was as much with the thrill of the coming escapade as with outright terror. It was hard to tell where one ended and the other began. He knew then, as the ghosts of old emotions gripped his soul, that he was going to go through with this. If he lived to tell the tale he would be a hero, and if he failed, then he failed. He would be too dead to care.

He was whistling in the dark. It would be better to concentrate on his preparations. They had timed this correctly. It was late in the afternoon. Darkness would fall shortly after they were inside. This would be among the last carts of the day to enter the Tower. He would lower himself into the courtyard and join the porters there. He would do his best to keep out of sight and then he would make his way within the building and see what he could see.

The cart stopped and he heard voices speaking. He realised that they were at the gate already, and the guards were checking them through. Fear filled him. Perhaps the soldiers would sense the nervousness of the drivers. Perhaps their guilt was written on their face, or Tomar’s men were even now betraying him to the Tower watch.

He tightened his grip on his poisoned weapons. If the worst came to the worst, he would kill a few and then turn the blade on himself. He did not want to face torture. He wanted a quick clean death.

Even as that thought crossed his mind, he knew that he would hesitate. Much as he hated things in this life, certain times had still been sweet. There was much he still wanted to do.

He cursed himself again for ever having put himself in this position, but then thought what choice had he ever had. There was a certain inevitability about it all now, as if every choice he had ever made, every road he had ever walked, had led him to this.

He almost sighed as the cart started moving once more. At this very moment, he would be undergoing the baleful scrutiny of the guardians within the walls. He felt nothing, sensed nothing and he prayed to the Light that this was a good sign, that he had passed undetected.

Every minute he expected to hear the sound of alarm drums and horns, of men rushing to capture him, but he heard nothing but the rumble of wheels on cobbles and the shifting of the cargo on the boards above him.

He relaxed then tensed his muscles, loosening them, untying the knots the strain of lying here for the past hour had put in them. He wanted to be limber and ready to move when the time for action came. His chances of survival depended on it.

The cart came to a halt. Moments later it bounced under the weight of men clambering on to unload it. He wriggled towards the exit hole, felt his feet touch empty air, pushed his legs through. There was a sickening dropping sensation. He hit the ground as silently as he could. It was dark. He smelled meat and sacks of grain and other provender. He knew that he was within a large storage shed.

Now was the worst part. He could see feet and legs on the far side of the cart. He could hear voices talking above him. It would be very easy to be caught. He glanced right. There was a small gap between two massive stacks of grain bags. He offered up a small prayer of thanks. The driver at least had kept his wits about him and parked the cart where he should. He swung his small duffel bag over his shoulders, scuttled over and dived into the gap, moving as quickly and quietly as he could into the gloom between the rows.

So far, so good, he thought. He was inside the Tower and he was still free. He hunkered down to wait in the shadows. Soon it would be full dark and he would have more chance of going about his business.

Rik moved through the warehouse. It was dark now but he could see, his half-Terrarch eyes piercing the gloom better than any human’s. The large doors were closed but there was a small postern gate as he had been told. It was locked. He felt a surge of claustrophobia and the old fear of being trapped, then he reached within his tunic and pulled out his lock picks.

As a boy, Koralyn had made him practise picking locks in the dark, and beat him for every failure. Rik had never expected to feel gratitude to the old bastard, but he did now, as the mechanism clicked and the door opened.

The moon glared through the clouds. The glow of the Tower easily provided enough illumination for him to see by. Storm force rain fell. Droplets splashed down into puddles. Green rings broke the reflection of the tower in the water. The massive bulk loomed overhead, mountain large, seemingly impregnable.

Who was he to think he could pierce its secrets? It’s hellish green glow underlit the clouds.

There was a smell in the air of ozone and something else.

What was going on here tonight, he wondered? Was this a sign of the power Ilmarec had gathered, that he was ready now to destroy Azaar’s army. What sorcery did he plan?

Rik was still in shadow himself and he intended to stay that way. He could make out a few people moving across the courtyard and sentries silhouetted against the walls.

He studied his surroundings. In the darkness the tower had a weird glow, phosphorescent like the scum that sometimes floated in the water at the effluent outlets of a Sorrow alchemical works. The runes set in the structure’s side grew brighter and then faded, and he was more than ever reminded of the fact that the Tower was the product of alien sorcery. The cycle of increasing brightness and then fading became more obvious and more pronounced. This had never happened before.

He exhaled a long silent breath and tried to calm his racing heart. He visualised the maps Asea had provided and attempted to relate them to this benighted space. Satisfied that he knew where he was going he made his way to the outer wall, touched its cool surface with his left hand, and walked for a hundred paces along its curve.

“Hey you,” said a voice. “What are you up to?”

Two large men were walking in his direction, heads down, shoulders hunched against the rain. He cursed himself. He should have taken the time to put on his Tower Guard uniform then these men would not be bothering him.

“Yes,” said Rik, trying to keep his tone of voice non-committal and imitate a local accent. He put his hands together as if in a gesture of obeisance and apology. In reality he was making sure he could grip the hilt of the poisoned dagger in its drop-sheath. “What do you want?”

“What are you doing here?” asked the larger of the two men. He was slightly the better dressed of the two and had a head servant’s bullying manner with underlings.

“Just getting a breath of fresh air, sir,” said Rik. “It was stuffy inside.”

“Stuffy was it? You should be back in chambers. If you sneaked out for a smoke…” He sniffed the air ostentatiously. “Well you know how his Lordship told us all to be within by Bell Ten. I’ll have your hide, my lad.”

Rik stared at him. The man stepped back a little. Rik wondered if the speaker sensed how close he was to death. Rik measured the distance between them. He could get one man with the knife, but he was not sure he could take out the other before he could give the alarm.

“No smoking,” said Rik. “I never touch the weed. Anyway, hard to get a light in this rain.”

The other servant was looking at him strangely now. “Who are you?” he said. “I don’t recall seeing your face around before.”

“New hire,” said Rik confidently, stepping forward a little.

“I didn’t hear anything about any new hires,” said the larger man. “And I should have been told. If Bortha has been hiring behind my back, I’ll have his guts for garters. He’s supposed to consult with me about any hires.”

Rik knew how it was. Working in a place like the Tower was a good job. You had to bribe the head servants if you wanted in.

“Bortha said there wouldn’t be no trouble,” he said, deeming it better to go along with the story that the man had already placed in his own head.

“Did he now? We’ll see about that. You just come along with me and we’ll have a little chat with Bortha.” The man laid a heavy hand on Rik’s arm. He was very strong, stronger than Rik had expected. He allowed himself to be pulled toward the man, let the knife slide loose from its scabbard. As he came alongside the servant, Rik drove the blade into the man’s side. The servant slumped forward, gasping, the poison already starting to take effect.

“What is it? What’s wrong?” Rik asked in as normal a voice as he could. His fingers trembled on the knife hilt. “Quick! Help me!” he said to the second servant.

The man moved closer and Rik sprang forward and grabbed him, moving behind the man, locking his free hand on his throat. He put one hand over the man’s mouth to stifle his screams and drove the knife into his heart. There was no sense in relying on the poison. It might already have been all gone from the blade. The man slumped forward dead.

Rik started to tremble as reaction set in. This quick stealthy sort of killing was not something he liked. He had killed in battle many times, but there was an additional strain involved because of the need for silence and the proximity of guards and sorcerous guardians.

Be calm, he told himself, and breathed deeply. Think.

Swiftly he moved back to the wall. Of course, he had lost the exact location in the scuffle. He glared around frantically. His heart raced. At any time, more servants or more sentries might come and find him. He doubted he would be so lucky a second time.

He froze, trying to decide what to do. Should he go back for the bodies and drag them into the warehouse? If he left them lying there, surely someone would find them. On the other hand, every heartbeat he stood here was another heartbeat in which someone might notice him.

He leaned against the wall until the fit of trembling left him. There was blood on his hands, particularly the one that held the knife. He put the blade down carefully and tried to wipe it off on the wall, leaving a series of bloody smears and handprints. It came to him that he might have left similar prints on the outside, a tell-tale sign, along with the corpses, that would let the inhabitants of the Tower know where he had gone.

Another thought occurred to him. What if he had nicked himself with the knife? What if he had somehow accidentally poisoned himself? He checked his hands for cuts and found none. He paused and listened to his pounding heart and rasping breath, trying to detect any signs of either slowing or becoming abnormal. It was long minutes before he decided that there were none, and that he had better get on with his mission.

It was only then that the realisation began to sink in that he had extinguished two human lives as casually as he might have swatted flies. Perhaps Asea was right about him, and right about the Shadowblood.

He pushed the thought aside. Under these circumstances such a heritage could only be an advantage.

The Nerghul pulled itself over the lip of the cliff. Huge walls of glass-like substance loomed over it, wet and slick and gleaming. It was not the walls that troubled the creature, it was the enormous power surging through them. The Nerghul sensed the presence of an intelligence within, tapping that power, one that it would be foolish for it to challenge.

It paced along the narrow ledge, considering. Its experience of the other night had taught it caution. It had taken hours crouching in the darkness among the old ruins to heal its injuries and that place had not been nearly as well defended as this. Still, the scent of its prey led here and it needed to kill, the way a lover needs the caress of its beloved.

There was something strange in the air this night. The flow of power around the Tower was odd. It surged and sank, peaked and troughed. The Nerghul felt the unease of the intelligence chained within the walls. It felt that unease itself the way an animal senses a coming storm. It sensed moments of weakness in the defensive wards, and moments where to touch those walls would mean instant death.

It crouched down to wait for another trough. When the moment came it sprang, reaching the top of the wall with ease. A moment later, it knew the defences were working again, but now it was inside, and it sensed the nearness of its prey.

Soon it would be time to kill.


Chapter Twenty-One

<p>Chapter Twenty-One</p>

Rik strolled casually around the base of the Tower, trying not to attract any attention. Where had all the people gone? Most likely into the Tower. The hair on the back of his neck rose. His skin tingled. There was a strange feeling in the air, like the closeness before a storm, of that brief instant before a cannonball hit close by.

Something was happening here; he had no idea what, but it made him nervous.

He needed to get inside the Tower and be about his work. Above him he could see a balcony, jutting out from the body of the tower in a streamlined bulge. He took the grapnel and knotted rope from his duffel bag and swung it swiftly upward. It caught on the third attempt. All the while the skin on his back crawled. He expected to be shot by a guard.

Not likely he told himself. It was dark and it was raining. Damp powder would most likely misfire. The thought did not make him feel any better.

He tugged the rope to make sure it was firm then pulled himself up using the knots in the rope for purchase. His fingers struggled for purchase on the rain-slicked spidersilk. His arms burned from having to support his weight. After what felt like hours, he reached the balcony. He had a moment of sheer, stark terror as his fingers slipped on the rope, but he managed to get a grip and pull himself over.

Rain puddled on the slick green stone under his feet. He listened at the closed shutters but could not hear anything within.

He pried the shutters open with his knife. He turned to glance over his shoulders for a last look at the world beyond the Tower, knowing he might never see anything beyond it again.

There was only the great walls, the huge surrounding courtyard and the massive outbuildings. Then he saw it, moving crouched but with unnatural speed across the courtyard, pausing head down to sniff occasionally.

It took him a moment to realise it was following his path exactly and that it had found the bodies of the men he had killed. When it did not immediately give the alarm, the nagging sense of familiarity about the thing crystallised. He had only seen it for a few moments back in the House of Three Swans, but those few moments were enough to burn the memory of it into his consciousness forever.

The Nerghul was on his trail. Fear clutched his heart. His mouth felt dry. He was uncomfortably aware of the throb of his pulse. Sweat beaded his brow. He could not survive an encounter with the thing. He froze for a moment but then the image of the Nerghul clambering up his own rope came to him. Swiftly, with fumbling fingers, he pulled the rope up, then stepped inside the room.

He cursed. He had barely begun and already things had gone badly wrong. How had it got past the guardians, he wondered? What other miscalculations has Asea made? As he crossed the room, he told himself there was no sense in apportioning blame. He checked his surroundings. There were pallets on the floor and small heaps of personal possessions. This looked like servants quarters.

What to do, what to do, he wondered? He already felt as if the Nerghul were only a few steps behind him.

Sardec stood beside Asea as she stared out the window at the Tower.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“I was not thinking, I was praying,” she said.

“There’s nothing we can do now. The carters have returned. Our man is inside. All we can do is hope he is not caught.” Sardec thought about how he had once felt about the half-breed and felt slightly ashamed. He had to admit the man was brave. Sardec was not sure he could have gone into the Tower alone to do what the half-breed was doing.

“If he fails,” Asea said. “We fail.”

“Perhaps not. Perhaps Ilmarec is not as powerful as he thinks.”

“You are not a sorcerer, Lieutenant. You cannot feel what is radiating out of that Tower. Ilmarec is powerful if he controls it, perhaps more powerful than any other living being on this planet.”

Looking at the way the green-lit clouds swirled around the peak of the Tower, Sardec was prepared to believe her. When the lightning and thunder started, it seemed merely another manifestation of the Tower’s ancient evil energies.

Sardec let out a long breath. He was going to suggest that they sit down and have something to drink, but he did not. If all they could do now was keep this vigil, it was what they had to do. Anything else would seem like a betrayal of the man they had sent into that terrible place.

Ilmarec lowered himself into the command throne. All was in readiness. The servants were gathered in the great hall. All of his troops were in position. Kathea was confined to her chambers nearby. The great ritual was complete. Tonight he would unleash the greatest weapon this world had seen in millennia.

He took a final look around. The central chamber was empty save for his demonic bodyguard. It would keep watch while he was at his most vulnerable and deal with anybody who managed to get past his guards and into this sacred place.

He allowed himself a momentary surge of triumph. It had taken centuries to master the secrets of the Tower, to open the seals to its hidden heart and awaken the Old One who lay in long-doomed hibernation within its secret vaults. It had taken endless study and sacrifice and the expenditure of a great deal of gold.

Tonight would make it all worthwhile. He would prove to the world that he was the greatest sorcerer of all the Terrarchs, and a power to be feared as much as the Princes of Shadow. He would destroy Azaar’s army the way a man would crush a nest of insects, and all would know who was the true master of the world.

Anything and everything seemed possible. He would free his beloved nation of foreigners. He would drive both the Taloreans and the Sardeans back to their homelands, and after that he would conquer them. Perhaps he would even open the Eye of the Sun and reclaim Al’Terra from the Princes of Shadow. He knew he could do it, if he wished. What lay within the tower made him capable of it.

He smiled. Such pleasant daydreams were getting him nowhere. It was time to test the power of this ancient artefact and put the Old One’s knowledge to good use. It had taken him long enough to obtain it. He smiled, knowing his captive would sense the use he was putting the knowledge it had given him to, and tremble.

He touched the glowing amulet on his chest, and muttered complex sentences in the cold, hissing language of the Serpent Men. His mind opened and sent tendrils of thought drifting out to interlock with the chained intelligence of the Tower. It responded to his alienness and fought him briefly, but he drew upon the power of the talisman, and it recognised its appointed master.

His body seemed far away now. His true form was the Tower. He could feel it like he could feel his own flesh. He touched the cocoon of energy that encased it and it grew thicker as he willed it to. He was aware of the mighty power that burned in its heart, a power which grew ever stronger as he drew upon its energies.

He was a god. It was that simple. He could reach out and destroy the entire town below if he wanted but that was not his purpose. He extended his will and the Tower obeyed. His senses extended to the horizon. He reached out with fingers of force and probed the nearby mountains. Only the curvature of the world’s surface protected Azaar’s army now, and he would deal with that soon enough.

Awake, he told the spirit of the Tower. Give me your strength.

It responded.

Rik stripped off his wet clothes and got into the guard’s uniform. He strapped the sword to his side and stuck a pistol inside his jerkin. He made sure all his concealed weapons were in place. He forced himself to go through all of this quickly and calmly even though he felt certain that the Nerghul was about to lay its cold hand on his shoulder at any moment.

He pulled on his officer’s tricorne hat, forced himself to smile and stepped out into the corridor. The flash of the lightning almost made him wet himself but at least it prepared him for the boom of the thunder that came heartbeats later. He thought about going back over to close the shutters but could not make himself go back in the direction of the creature that hunted him.

Instead he forced himself out into the corridor. Where were all the servants, he wondered? Where were all the guards? What were they about, this night of all nights?

It did not matter too much. He made his body march confidently. He knew he needed to find the ramp up into the Princess’s chambers. Asea had marked them on her map.

With the Nerghul out there he could not help but feel this mission was doomed before he started, but there seemed nothing else to do but keep at it. It seemed preferable to waiting for unclean death to come and claim him.

The Nerghul stood in the rain at the base of the Tower. Its prey had gone up here, it could catch the scent. It could not climb these huge slick walls, and the height of the balcony baffled even its mighty leaps. It would have to find another way in. It slid around the Tower looking for an entrance. It found an archway from which a jewel eyed serpent looked down. It was under observation it knew.

It sensed the power there, the cold malign intelligence that had watched for centuries, an intelligence which could call upon strange powers to aid it. The mansion it had attacked had been guarded by wards of a similar type. It stepped away, took a long run and leapt through the archway. Cold needles of agony lanced through its brain. Its whole body seemed encased in a chill so deep it burned. Had not momentum carried it through the archway, the Nerghul would have been frozen to the spot. The pain would most likely have burst the brain of a normal man, but the Nerghul was not as they. It landed sprawling in the corridor beyond the arch, momentarily stunned by the power that had blasted it.

Two sentries looked at it in astonishment then raised their rifles. The Nerghul attacked.

Rik closed his eyes and visualised the maps he had memorised. He had a long way to go, and only a short time to do it in. It was only a matter of minutes before somebody spotted him and a general alarm was given.

He forced himself to smile and walk with the swaggering confidence of a Terrarch officer. He kept his back straight and his gaze in the mid-distance. He strode along as if he had every right to be here.

The oddly shaped corridor emerged onto a gallery. A mass of people filled the large circular chamber below him. Most of them were humans although a few green-garbed Terrarch stood watching them. He hoped none of them has noticed him. A commotion erupted at the entrance.

A horrid figure in tattered black clothing, grey skin peeling from its face, eyes a hideous red, smashed a soldier aside and hurtled into the room. It sniffed the air and its gaze scanned the balcony on which Rik stood, drawing the attention of everyone in the room to him.

Rik’s heart hammered against his ribs. His mouth felt desert dry. He felt terribly conspicuous as he stood away from the balustrade and continued walking towards the upward ramp. From down below came the sound of screaming and shots.

It seemed that the Nerghul has begun the business of killing with its customary efficiency. How long would it take till it got to him, he wondered?

Was there any way to escape from this cursed place?

Ilmarec exerted his will. In a hundred places crystal panes slid from the walls, sealing the windows. Massive airtight doors slammed into place at every entrance. Within the Tower massive artificial lungs began to breath, cleaning the air, changing its alchemical consistency. Power built up within the structure’s demonic heart. Soon, thought Ilmarec. Soon.

Rik heard an audible click as thick translucent panes sealed every window. A blazing curtain of lurid greenish light flowed up the side of the building, as if the Tower now stood in the middle of a vast blazing bonfire on which some mad alchemist had thrown strange powders. The floor beneath his feet vibrated as if the building was coming alive. Was this some sort of defence mechanism? Was the Tower trying to protect itself from the incursion of the Nerghul?

He was trapped now for sure. There was no way out.

Sardec looked at the Tower. Flame wreathed it then sank away, wreathed it again, and then vanished. The clouds swirled around the tower’s tip, creating a greenly underlit vortex. An enormous sense of pressure filled the air. Sardec could believe that Ilmarec was summoning an army of demons up there. This was the mightiest sorcerous ritual he had ever witnessed. He cursed the wizard and the day he had begun to seek Elder World knowledge.

“What’s happening,” he asked Asea. He almost didn’t want an answer. He feared it would be too frightening. Down below, the courtyard was full despite the rain, as the Foragers emerged to witness what was happening on the cliffs above town. From beyond the walls of the mansion he could hear shouts and screams. Some people clearly thought the end of the world had come. Perhaps they were right.

“I don’t know, but it’s going to be terrible. I have never sensed such power,” Asea said. “Not even when we fought the Princes of Shadow back on Al’Terra.

An awful thought whispered inside Sardec’s head. Perhaps this was a prelude to unleashing the green light. Perhaps the half-breed had been discovered and Ilmarec was about to destroy them all in response. Or perhaps…

“Perhaps he really is going to destroy Azaar’s army,” Sardec said.

“I don’t doubt he has the capability.”

Rena, Sardec thought.

Bullets blasted into the Nerghul’s flesh. It batted a screaming woman aside and leapt for the man who had shot it. With a clean movement it tore the soldier’s rifle from his arm and tossed it at the head of another foe. Before that foe had even started to collapse, it tore the arm of the rifle’s former owner from its socket in a welter of blood and gristle. Using it as a club, it smashed its way through the crowd. Random shots from panicked soldiers helped do its work for it.

There was no need for this. None of it was getting it any closer to its prey. It sniffed the air again, and caught the scent. Swiftly, inexorably, it began to follow the trail.

Rik turned the corner and almost halted as two Terrarch officers ran towards him, swords drawn. “What’s going on down there?” the tallest and most arrogant looking asked. He had a Captain’s epaulettes, or what would have been such in Queen Arielle’s army.

“Monster,” said Rik. “It broke in, started slaughtering the servants. Looks like Dark Empire work.”

The Captain stared at him coldly. “Why are you running away?”

“Came to summon help,” said Rik, reaching out and grabbing the Captain, tugging him back towards the balcony. Down below was a scene of terrible chaos as the undead creature did its work. “Look,” he said. “Down there, there it is.”

The Captain nodded and then shot a sideways glance at Rik. “I don’t know you,” he said. Rik’s nerves were keyed up to the ultimate level. The Captain seemed to be moving as slowly as a man trapped in bad dream. Rik’s blow caught him on the side of the head and sent him toppling over the balcony.

The other officer just looked at him as if not quite able to understand what was going on. Rik was grateful. He sprang forward and punched him in the throat. The officer made a horrible rattling noise and went down. Rik caught his sword by the hilt even as it fell from numbed fingers and ran it through the officer’s body.

A strange sense of satisfaction flowed through him. It vanished when he noticed more soldiers led by a Terrarch officer were rushing down the rampway. They had seen what he had done, were looking at him with horror.

“Traitor,” shouted the leader.

There was no way up that way. He turned and ran as bullets smashed off the balcony all around him. He took the first turning on his left and then left again. Ahead of him loomed an entranceway, larger and dimmer than others in the Tower. He cast back his memory to the maps and realised that it was one of those marked as sealed. It quite obviously wasn’t sealed now.

There was something foreboding about it, that made his skin crawl but he did not have any choice. He raced towards it, expecting the door to block his way. To his surprise it gave way before him, and he sprawled forward into the darkest, innermost recesses of the Tower, into the area that had been forbidden even to Ilmarec for so many centuries.

Behind him he heard a Terrarch voice shouting: “ Don’t follow him. Whoever he is, the fool has doomed himself.”


Chapter Twenty-Two

<p>Chapter Twenty-Two</p>

It was quieter in this part of the Tower. Almost like one of Asea’s wards had slipped into place when he passed through the entrance. The sounds of pursuit fell away. Rik ran on slamming into walls in his panic, until he forced himself to stop and take his bearings and study his surroundings.

The walls glowed with their own soft internal light, dimmer than within the tower chambers. It suggested secrecy and stealth and some abominable purpose. Rik found it easy to imagine painted Serpent Men priests creeping through these tunnels and spying on their fellows, selecting sacrifices from among them and then carrying them off into the gloomy regions below as offerings to their demon gods, never to be seen again, never to be asked after.

He told himself he was imagining things, that he had read too many cheap novels, that the chances were that he could never guess or understand the motives of creatures as alien as the Serpent Men. They were not even as human as the Terrarchs. They had been created by other gods, under the light of other suns if Asea was to be believed. And now he stood within one of their secret places.

The question was: how was he going to get out alive.

The Nerghul raced in pursuit of its prey. Ahead it sensed life. A group of soldiers stood around an entrance while one of their green clad officers harangued them about something. The Nerghul ripped through them, smashing them to one side, forcing them out of its way, as it hurtled through the archway.

A few strides took it round a corner and out of their line of fire. It paused for a moment and inspected itself for damage. The bullets had torn its flesh, weakening it somewhat but it knew that given time it would heal.

The walls around it burned with sorcerous energy and it sensed powerful spells designed to maze and confuse intruders. Even as it realised that, the spells began to warp and twist its sense of direction. It paused for a moment and concentrated on the scent of its prey.

As long as it could hold on to that it would find its victim.

Rik pushed on down the corridor. His eyes adjusted to the gloom and he noticed that sometimes, strange symbols swirled along within the walls. They did not seem to be doing this in response to his presence. He felt as if he was merely the witness to something that was always going on. The corridor carried him towards a split like a serpent’s tongue. One branch went up and the other continued on the same level. He took the path heading up. The lights became dimmer. The air became staler. The oppressive sense of alien presence continued to grow.

At times dizziness swept over him. At first he put it down to the bad air but after a while he realised that it was more than just that. Magical energy was all around. Sometimes he felt as if he were crossing invisible lines of it. He felt a tingling on his skin and pressure in his ears that should not have been there. The path curved and branched, curved and branched. Always he kept to the left hand path, the one that went higher. The deeper within the Tower he went the stronger the sorcerous pressure became.

He felt as if something was opposing him, willing him to retreat, not to proceed any further. There were times when his feet felt like lead, and it took an enormous effort of will to continue to press forward.

He took another step and felt something click beneath his foot. He cursed himself for his carelessness. He had been so busy trying to deal with the sorcery he had neglected to look for the most basic of traps.

He glanced around waiting to see what would happen: wondering if he had triggered something that would seal the corridors or summon a guardian. He had encountered such things in the treasure rooms of merchants back in Sorrow. For a long moment nothing seemed to happen then the floor underneath his feet began to move.

He struggled to maintain his balance as the stone started to flow like a river at a uniform pace, carrying him upwards and inwards swifter than a man could run. He tried to turn but there was nothing he could do. No matter how fast he ran he was carried along: all his efforts were doing was slowing his progress and exhausting himself.

Eventually he sat down on the stonework and marvelled at the Elder World sorcery that could make the glassy stone flow like a solidified form of water. He felt as if he were on a sledge being carried upwards, at forks he was effortlessly and dizzingly moved between switches so that he became lost. He was moving so quickly and so randomly that he doubted he would be able to remember his way back even if he were allowed to depart.

Had he triggered a trap, he wondered, such as ancient kings set for tomb robbers? Or was this a sorcerous defence set by Ilmarec? The thought that the ancient wizard might know he was here filled him with fear. His swift progress had taken on an air of unreality now. The lights blurred by, the stone felt warmer. He wondered if he was being carried out of his world and into another, passing perhaps from the reality of Gaeia into some extra-dimensional hell.

Ilmarec laughed with pure pleasure then began the final stages of the ritual. He was dimly aware that somewhere far away an alarm had been triggered. The moth wings of a warning system beat against his senses. Intruders, he thought, but there was nothing he could do about it now. He needed all his concentration simply to keep control of the Tower’s intelligence.

And there was something else too. Somewhere another entity had seized control of part of the Tower. Had the Old One waited for this most critical moment to try and rebel? He promised himself if that were the case he would make it pay for its insolence and soon.

Right now he had other more important things to worry about. This was the most important stage of the ritual. If he failed here, the magic would run out of control and the consequences would prove incalculable. So much energy saturated the Tower that if he failed to rein it in, even this mighty structure would be destroyed. A power like that of a god lay at the Tower’s core ready to be unleashed. If he failed to control it now, everyone within the Tower and for leagues around would be destroyed.

Under the deepest compulsions, the Old One had been most insistent on this when it warned him of the consequences of any mistake in the ritual. He gave his fullest concentration to invoking the magical symbols it had taught him. He would not fail. He must not fail.

Eventually, Rik saw that the moving ramp ended inside a cavernous chamber. Along each wall were enormous sarcophagi. In the middle of the chamber was an altar. The dim greenish glow still illuminated everything. He stepped out into what looked like an ancient tomb. He had a sense that what was buried there was not entirely dead.

Slowly, reluctantly, he pressed forward to inspect the nearest sarcophagus. It was long and low and he could see that the lid was made of translucent green crystal. Inside was a skeleton of a creature long dead. It has not been even remotely human. It has a strangely shaped ribcage and a long neck and a skull like that of a giant serpent. A small gem had been set right in the middle of its forehead. Tatters of scaly skin still clung to its bones. Long snakes of cable emerged from the walls of its coffin and led into its flesh. What ritual significance might they have had, he wondered.

He checked another sarcophagus and found something similar. When he looked closely he saw the serpent-like cables led out of the coffin and into the wall. Glancing around he saw that something was different about the sarcophagus across the chamber. Its inhabitant appeared better preserved.

As he moved closer a sense of dread grew within him but he was compelled against his will to approach the thing, and he feared what he would find when he got there.

Looking down into this crystal lidded sarcophagus, he saw a robed figure. It was a Serpent Man, clearly one of a different caste from the ones in the other coffins. It was slimmer and lighter and full fleshed. The preservation was perfect. It could almost still have been alive.

Its scales were finer, and the patterns on them more intricate, as if its skin had been tattooed in intricate dizzying patterns of sorcerous significance. As he looked on them the patterns he had seen flickering in the walls above came to mind. There were echoes of them here, and perhaps links to them.

The Serpent Man’s neck was long and thick and muscular like the body of a constricting snake. Its head was large and reptilian, the jaw outward jutting, the forehead bulging. The eyes were lidless. The creature’s irises were golden and as Rik glanced into them he sensed intelligence there, something cold, swift and dangerous. It came to him that he should not have met the thing’s gaze but it was too late, contact of some sort had been made. He tried to look away and found he could not. He stood transfixed, like a small bird before a large venomous serpent.

“I fear something has gone very wrong,” said Asea. Sardec did not have to ask her for explanations. The rain fell harder smashing against the window panes with all the force of the storm, but it could not obscure the Tower. Glowing light enveloped it now. Sheets of green lightning leapt up from the Serpent’s Fang to light the lower bellies of the bloated clouds.

A sense of terrible expectancy filled the air. Something very bad was about to happen.

Rik felt the presence of another mind. It seemed, quite obscenely, to be slithering into his very consciousness. It was as if a link of energy flowed between the creature’s eyes and his own, and tendrils of thought passed down that link.

He tried to oppose the creature’s will but could not. It was like opposing a glacier with his bare hands. The thing was slow, certain, implacable, irresistible. Ghostly alien fingers riffled through his memories. It came to him then, that the creature had not been dead. It was not sleeping. It was in some state between the two conditions, perhaps like a bear hibernating through winter. Perhaps his presence had awoken it.

He saw again things he thought he had forgotten as a whirl of impressions flickered through his mind, to be assimilated and digested by the creature in the sarcophagus.

He was a small boy in Temple Orphanage confined to his quarters for being disrespectful to his elders. He was a teenage thief running through the streets of Sorrow with an irate stall-keeper in hot pursuit. In his hand, he held a stolen pear. Behind him the roar of the crowd, getting ready to chase down the interloper was in his ears.

He was a young man in the Old Witch’s chambers. They smelled of old woman and urine and strange incenses. There was a painting on the wall of the beautiful young woman she claimed once to have been. Behind it was the hidden cache containing the rest of her grimoires. He heard feet on the stairs, and hurried to replace the volume whose cryptic secrets he had failed to understand and climbed out through the window.

He raced across the roofs of Sorrow, hand in hand with Sabena. Her golden hair drifted in the wind. The red slates felt rough under his bare feet. The golden spire of the great Temple dominated the skyline ahead of them. He leaned against a warm chimneypot as he kissed her. Its warmth was greater even than that of her body on the spring evening. She broke away at last and said; “Antonio would kill us if he knew. Perhaps we should kill him first.”

He stood before the massive bulk of the Quartermaster and accepted the Queen’s crown, the coin feeling small and hard in his fist. He swore the oath and accepted the greatcoat and the boots and the rifle. The cold air of morning turned his breath to mist. Weasel and the Barbarian gave him the thumbs up. Small wizened Leon elbowed him in the ribs. “We’re soldiers now, Rik,” he said.

All around him were the smell of smoke, the screams of the dying and a mass of warm stinking bodies, exchanging blows, stabbing with bayonets, clubbing with rifle butts. Officers shouted orders. Bones cracked. Blood flowed down the narrow cobbled streets. The Clockmaker’s followers fought like fanatics, like men crazed by religious passion in the service of their atheist leader’s cause. A whey-faced man in the robes of a peddler raced at him, brandishing a rusty cutlass. Rik aimed his bayonet at the man’s stomach and thrust, burying it in warm flesh. The man looked at him with shocked, accusing eyes as if not quite believing that he had been stabbed. He flopped forward and Rik felt a strange mixture of exultation and revulsion at his first kill in the warm blood of battle.

He looked down from the ridgeline at the walled city of Legacy, the Clockmaker’s capital. Behind him bugles called to the troops. Overhead a flight of dragons arced down towards the burning city. Moments later they weaved through the towers of smoke, dropping exploding alchemical eggs that added to the blaze.

He stood in the cave at the entrance to Deep Achenar, looking at a dead magician’s books, certain that within them were secrets that could change his life, while nearby lay the corpse of a dead demon. Weasel and the Barbarian stood close, and he felt certain that they would murder him if he did not acquiesce to their plan.

Here for the first time he got some sense of response from the Serpent Man. He felt an odd flicker of emotion that seemed a combination of hunger, lust and interest. Perhaps it was only his mind’s feeble effort to interpret the alien emotion.

His memories reeled on, covering his first encounter with Asea, and the battle with Uran Ultar in the caverns beneath the unholy mountain. Once more he sensed that odd hunger/interest along with fear/anger/horror. He was not exactly sure why but he had a feeling that the inhuman observer was familiar with the Spider God and both feared and hated it.

Once again he tried to resist the probing. He had slightly more of a sense of how it worked now, and he wrestled with the intruder within his mind, trying to hide some of his most shameful memories, to direct its interest elsewhere. He sensed a cold amusement at this, and he realised for the first time that the creature was actually aware of him as a sentient being like itself. An odd symbol began to take shape in his mind, containing within it the idea of greetings and something else he was not sure he understood.

Slowly, images swirled and began to take form in his psyche.

The Nerghul smashed against another wall and tried to regain its balance. The moving walkways seemed determined to carry it away from its prey, although this entire area stank of it. Filled with inhuman determination it pulled itself to its feet once more and moved against the flow. It was only a matter of time before it found what it was looking for.


The symbols in Rik’s mind changed, flickered, became images that he felt he could almost understand although there was something about them that was very alien, then they wavered into incomprehensibility again before coming back into clear, sharp focus.

As if in a waking dream, pictures appeared before his mind’s eye. He was within a scene, seen through eyes set differently from his own, assaulted by a welter of taste-scents that he could not understand at all, and which served only to confuse him. Then, as if the Serpent Man understood his difficulties, the taste-scents were toned down and finally vanished, and a greater emphasis was placed on sight and sound. He began to understand.

He saw the arrival of the Serpent Men on Gaeia. The Towers had not been built by sorcery. They had arrived intact, dropping from the sky surrounded by coruscating haloes of incandescent air, settling down in pre-chosen locations across the continents. Once they made landfall, the doors in their sides opened, and the Serpent Men emerged to stride the soil of their new world. They were from some far place among the stars, refugees fleeing a cosmic struggle in which they had been on the losing side. They set to work building a home for themselves in a new world.

He saw this Tower as it had been in ancient days, standing atop its cliff. There was no sign of Morven, only concentric rings of raised earth walls and enormous barrows in which larger Serpent Men lived. Workers built corrals and herded beasts. A priestly caste of beings, who looked like the ones in this crypt, offered up sacrifices to strange extra-dimensional entities. Roads stretched off to the distance, to other Towers. Great green needles of a similar substance to the Tower, flashed across the horizons, carrying the Serpent Men about their business.

He saw the first encounter of humans with the Serpent Men, and their recruitment as servants and slaves and pupils. He saw his ancestors worship the Serpents as gods. He felt a surge of resentment. The Serpent Men in their own way were as bad as the Terrarchs. They used his people as slaves, as things little better than cattle.

A sense of contradiction, of amusement, of bafflement, of frustration flowed over the link he shared with the Serpent Priest. Rik could almost smell them. His view zoomed in on other scenes, of Serpent Men trying to teach humans, showing them diagrams, how to make implements. It became clear to him that the Serpent Man was trying to say there was more than a master/slave relationship, that the Serpent Men had been trying to help the humans, to teach them.

Once the creature sensed with certainty that he had understood this, Rik’s point of view became general again. It flickered back and forth across the surface of the world, revealed as a vast sphere, showing other civilisations, other nations.

He saw that the Serpent Men were not alone in their new world. Other alien races swam in its seas, burrowed beneath its surface, rode through the air in weird living machines. There was a sense of enormous activity, of the meeting of many civilisations, of trade and rivalry and growing tension and hatred. He saw that the Serpent Men were not alone in trying to recruit humans to help them.

He saw the buried cities of the Spider Folk, where many castes of strange arachnid beings scuttled through the dark. He saw humans with living weapons grafted to their flesh, and not just weapons. Men were hooked into massive things like monstrous scorpions, living machines that augmented their strength and allowed them to lift huge burdens in the modified pincers.

Enormous squid like creatures swam through the ocean, the motherships of the Quan, disgorging their smaller children into the seas to harvest fish and the resources of the deep, building huge pearl-domes beneath the waves, monuments to their sinister gods. He saw the largest mothership of all, a kraken-like creature vast as an island, its outline visible in the depths of the ocean, as if he were viewing it from one of those flying ships he had witnessed earlier.

He became aware that he was seeing an actual memory of the being with whom he was linked, and he sensed approval as it noticed his understanding. Slowly a sense of wonder grew within him. He was seeing the world as it had been aeons before the Terrarchs came, through the eyes of one who had actually been there.

He saw tensions mount between the races as they fought for resources and for slaves. He saw skirmishes lead to battles and battles lead to wars. He saw great engines of sorcery unleashed and mighty weapons deployed. He saw the Towers of the Serpent Men besieged by the spawn of Uran Ultar. Great armies did battle. Moth-like flyers assaulted the flying needles of the Serpent Men. Monstrous acid spewing beasts attacked the fortresses. Great mushroom clouds rose over massive explosions that turned fertile land to deserts of glass, and churned the boiling seas. Death rained down from the skies. Clouds of poison gas depopulated cities.

The Elder Races fell into barbarism. The thinking caste of the Ultari Spider Folk succumbed to madness and disease. The Ocean Queens of the Quan went insane or devolved back to being barely sentient. The Serpent Men retreated within their Towers, their sorcerer priests taking to their sarcophagi, determined to sleep until the world was healed. He saw this Tower being sealed, and then attacked with those awesome ancient weapons. He felt the damage to the Tower as agony within his body. He knew that the systems meant to protect the sleeping Serpent Priests had been damaged, perhaps irrevocably.

Blankness. Static. A sense of emptiness, of sleep filled with strange slow dreams. Suddenly the Tower was brought back to life when Ilmarec entered it and found this vault. He awakened this last surviving Serpent Priest, promised it aid; Ilmarec would help it rejoin its brethren and return to the stars. When he discovered the Serpent Priest’s true weakness, Ilmarec used spells to enslave it.

He felt the Serpent Man’s fury as he was bound by sorcery to Ilmarec’s will after an epic battle of mind and souls. The Serpent Man was awake now, but bound within its coffin, still linked to the Tower in strange ways, but unable to affect it. It could not move now from its crypt but it gave Ilmarec its talisman of command, taught him its secrets.

More scenes danced through Rik’s imagination, all of them views of the inside of the Tower, all of them from strange angles, as if the structure itself had eyes within it and he was looking through them. He saw Ilmarec performing experiments, finally learning how to partially heal the Tower, and communicate with its chained intelligence.

Rik saw recent events start to unfold.

He saw Jaderac come. He saw the Foragers and Asea and Sardec on their recent visit. He saw Kathea trapped in her chambers.

He saw himself as he appeared to the Serpent Man now, as he stood in the tomb. He knew he was seeing himself as the creature saw him. He sensed something else. To the Serpent Man he had a mind that could be barely touched or grappled with. He wondered if the truth was not that he was having difficulty understanding the Serpent Man because he was alien, but that the Serpent Man could barely touch his mind to communicate.

A wave of understanding passed between him and his captor then. It was trying to communicate with him. It needed him. He tried to listen, to receive, to empty his mind although he was not sure exactly what he was doing.

A sense of imminent danger grew within him. As it did so, he saw Ilmarec standing in the central chamber of the Tower performing some ritual. Awareness that the Tower itself was a quasi-living thing with its own senses, capable of perceiving things at hundreds of leagues away, flowed into him.

More images flickered into Rik’s mind along with more strange knowledge. He saw that Ilmarec had awakened something deep in the Tower’s heart, the trapped heart of a god, a thing that generated enough energy to hurtle the Tower into the sky and back through the cold gulf between stars.

He saw too what the Serpent Man knew and Ilmarec did not, or could not. The God’s heart was damaged. If Ilmarec continued to draw on its power, to use it to provide ever higher levels of magical energy, then the heart would break. It would explode and the unleashed energy of a million barrels of gunpowder would scorch the earth beneath it, destroying everything for hundreds of leagues around. Everyone and everything that fell beneath the shadow of the vast rising mushroom cloud would die.

Rik knew now what the Serpent Priest wanted. He wanted Ilmarec stopped and the Talisman of control returned to him. He was willing to offer alliance to Rik and his people, to aid them in getting rid of Ilmarec, and free the Princess.

Rik did not trust this creature. He was not sure he wanted it in charge of the Tower any more than he wanted Ilmarec to be.

More feelings flowed from it, of deep sadness mixed with calculation. The Serpent Man would not interfere in this war. The Tower was crippled. It wanted to repair it and depart to find its brethren among the stars.

Rik was adrift here. He was not Asea or Jaderac. He was in no position to bargain with the Serpent Priest as an equal. It was far older and possessed of far greater knowledge than he. He had only one advantage. If it allowed him to, he could move where it could not. It could do things he could not. He did not even know what it could offer him, other than his life, as its side of the bargain. As if responding to his confusion, it withdrew for a moment considering.

More images flickered into his mind. He saw the location of the Princess Kathea, and the way to get there. He saw the chambers in which Ilmarec waited. He saw all the sorcerous engines and defences and traps that lay between them. He saw how to overcome the old fail-safes. More and more knowledge, and alien thoughts flowed into him. He felt like screaming but within moments it was over, and he slumped forward, all contact broken with the Serpent Man.

He knew what he must do. At that moment, the whole Tower began to shake.

Sardec’s eyes were drawn to the Tower as if by some magnetic force. It seemed like a trapped sun burned there, and Sardec half-expected the green death to come raining down on Morven.

The mansion quivered beneath his feet, like the pre-shock of an earthquake. It was like being trapped in the belly of some great beast as it writhed in its death agonies. A smell of ozone filled the air. In the distance he heard things crashing down. Sardec offered up a prayer to the god of his childhood for his own safety and the safety of the others.

Above him the cliffs split. Great boulders tumbled down into the ruins, and then great chunks of the rock face sheared away and began to fall, taking those smooth glassy walls with it.

Wind rushed against his face, and the smell of ozone intensified. Bolts of magical energy crackled from the tower. Then slowly the Tower of the Serpent rose from the middle of the fortress, tons of earth shedding from its base. The whole bottom of the Tower glowed greenly as it flew upward, gathering speed as it went, the great green light of the Serpent’s Fang blinking oddly.

The Tower had taken flight, faster than any dragon. Awe clutched Sardec’s heart at the sight of the ancient enigmatic structure vanishing into night and storm. He knew now how Ilmarec intended to destroy Azaar’s army. He doubted any power in the world could stop it.


Chapter Twenty-Three

<p>Chapter Twenty-Three</p>

The moving walkway carried Rik though the heart of the Serpent Tower. He had an hour at most before the god’s heart at the core of the Tower erupted and destroyed him, the Tower and everything within leagues.

He groaned with desperation. He felt as if he were already dead. He needed to kill Ilmarec and reclaim the Serpent Man’s amulet, return it to the ancient being and hope that somehow it could save him. He did not think the chances of him managing it were good. He let out a long breath, and tried to calm his racing heart.

It was too late to worry now. In his mind’s eye, he pictured the path spiralling upward through the core of the Tower, through the secret levels that no human had ever penetrated before. In his heart the certainty was growing that no human would ever do so again.

The doorway slid outwards as the moving walkway stopped, revealing another corridor without a moving floor. Rik pushed on. This, at least, was something he was used to, being deep within forbidden ground all alone. It echoed his career as a burglar. Only then there had been no powerful demon-summoning sorcerers ahead of him. No lost princesses either.

He clutched his blade in his hand. He had his pistol in the other. He moved carefully, pausing to listen when he came to any entrances, making sure he heard nothing before proceeding passed them. He strode quietly along the corridors. He had been a thief in Sorrow, and often in places where absolute silence was his only protection. Somewhere out there were guardians, Terrarch soldiers, magical defences, and, worst of all, the Nerghul. He needed to hurry but he wanted to take no chances and the two imperatives warred within his soul.

The Tower was eerily quiet. His feet made no noise on the odd stonework, but he felt a strange thrumming vibration beneath them. Almost directly opposite was a window. Looking through it Rik could see the lights of the town, and the smouldering embers of the burned buildings. He seemed very high up now, almost touching the sky. The town spread out below, a glowing pattern of lights, like some Elder sign touched by sorcerous energy. Something about it reminded him of the way the runes had glowed on Sardec’s blade in the tunnels below Deep Achenar.

An awful thought struck him. Morven appeared to be receding below him. He knew now for certain that the Serpent Man has not lied about one thing; the Tower was airborne. Even as he watched, the clouds slid shut below them and obscured the lights of the town. He could see them roiling greenly, hellishly lit by the contrail of the massive structure as it ploughed ever upwards.

His stomach lurched as the tower seemed to tilt sideways. The tug of gravity remained the same, even though his own senses told him he should be tumbling through the air, or at least sliding sideways on the smooth floor. Whatever magic drove the tower through the sky kept gravity on the same plane within it.

Why not, he thought wonderstruck. The sorcery that could manage the one would surely have no difficulty with the other.

A sense of his own smallness in the great scheme of things filled him. He was trapped here in the belly of a thing both wonderful and terrifying, in an ancient vessel capable of leaping the immeasurable distances between the stars. When he thought of the forces at work here, he felt tiny. Who was he to pit his will against the Terrarch that could control such a thing?

Someone with no option but to try was the answer. Nonetheless, he paused for a moment before the massive crystal panes of the window and let the wonder of it flood his brain. Even if he died here, he would have seen something few others ever had or ever would again, and it seemed worthy of contemplation even if only for a few quick heartbeats before he moved on.

The way led upward and into an open chamber, low and circular, the ceiling dimpled like a dome. In the centre of the chamber was a raised dais. On the dais loomed what Rik at first took to be an incredibly life-like statue of a snake. Only after a few moments of holding his breath did he begin to believe what his instincts were telling him, that the thing was alive, and unsleeping, with a cold intelligence in its eyes and a hunger that was not entirely for flesh.

Even as he watched the massive serpent uncoiled lazily, its head arcing upwards to almost the height of the dome. Massive muscles rippled below its scaly skin. Green venom dripped from its long fangs.

He recognised the thing from the storybooks he had read as a youth and the knowledge the Serpent Man had placed in his head. It was a Na Gha, a guardian created by ancient sorcery. If those fangs pierced his skin he would surely die.

Ilmarec sensed something wrong. The powers within the heart of the Tower were unbalanced. No matter how hard he tried to control them, he failed. It was like trying to prevent water flooding through the sides of damaged boat. As soon as he dammed the energy in one area, it broke through in another. He controlled the Tower only with the greatest of difficulty. It constantly threatened to leap skyward out into the cold gulf of space or plummet earthward and bury itself into the ground. Despite the Old One’s warnings, he had never imagined that it could be so hard.

Worse, the power of the heart of the vessel raged unchained. For once the problem was not gathering enough energy to keep the magic working, the perennial trouble of all mages on this accursed globe, but to bend the titanic forces he had unleashed to his will. He feared that he had made a miscalculation. Desperately he forced his mind through the symbolic sorcery of the control ritual. He prayed that it would be enough.

The Na Gha slithered toward Rik, fast as a galloping horse. Its triangular head snapped down like a thunderbolt, so fast that the eye could barely follow it. Somehow Rik managed to twist aside and lashed out with his knife. The blade sliced the golden patterned scales. He slid to one side and stabbed again.

The Na Gha hissed like a boiling kettle and lashed out frenziedly. Rik saw he had destroyed one eye. Insane killing rage entered the thing’s good eye, as it swept forward once more.

He backed away, drawing his own pistol and aimed for the other eye. When the muzzle of his pistol was so close to the Na Gha’s eye he could almost touch it, he pulled the trigger, praying that the gun would not misfire.

The hammer thudded home. The charge sparked. The pistol boomed. The bullet was driven right through the jelly of the thing’s eye. It hissed and lashed the air once more. He threw himself clear and waited for another attack. It did not come but the huge snake took a long time to die.

He slumped wearily against the wall convinced that his shot must have attracted the attention of the whole tower. After a second he forced himself to move on.

The Nerghul emerged from the maze at the Tower’s heart. Its feet were on solid ground, at last, and not a moving walkway. It knew that whatever controlled the walkway had tried to frustrate its designs but in the end the Nerghul had proved victorious. From up ahead came the scent of its prey. Not far now, it realised, and it would achieve its goal and fulfil the purpose of its creation.

Rik wished he had thought to take some of the serpent’s venom for his blade, although he knew how dangerous poison could be. He was nearing a time when any advantage could mean the difference between life and death. Too late now, he told himself, he did not have time to go back. He remembered the magebane Asea had given him.

He stopped for a moment, took the jar from within his duffel bag and, using a small bit of cloth, carefully smeared it onto the sword and the blades of his concealed dagger. Afterwards he sealed the jar and threw away the cloth. He did not want to take the chance of getting any of the poison on to his skin.

Now for the combat drugs, he thought. He took out the package and put the powder on his tongue and let it dissolve. Aside from a slight numbness in his mouth at first, he noted no effects, then he noticed that his senses felt keener, and he felt stronger and swifter and almost cheerful. The effects would only last for an hour, and then he would feel the dreadful after effects. He figured that if ever there was a time to use them, now was it.

He continued to follow the ramps upward until he entered an open space. Before him were two huge green-scaled figures. Their heads only came up to the height of Rik’s chest but that was because the upper half of their massive torso’s leaned forward, balanced by huge serpent-like tails. Their heads resembled those of dragons. Their teeth were massive, their tongues like those of snakes. Their eyes were small, cold and inhuman. In three-fingered, taloned hands they held saw-edged blades massive as two handed swords. It took him a moment to realise that he was looking at statues.

From the knowledge the Serpent Man had placed in his mind, he knew that the command chamber lay beyond. He had reached his goal.

Something like joy filled the Nerghul as it loped through the greenly glowing corridors. Finally its prey was before it. It could catch the scent intensely. It sensed other thing too, the presence of powerful magic, and strong sorcery as well as a potent demonic presence. It recalled its orders. It would kill all the others present as well, but first it would finish its prey. It rushed forward to strike.

Rik looked into a huge chamber in the centre of which sat Ilmarec enthroned. A nimbus of green light played around the wizard’s head. His eyes were closed. Rik slid through the entranceway, poisoned blade held ready. Then he noticed the wizard’s robed bodyguard hovering nearby. Its cowled head turned towards him, and he knew then that he was about to die. A moment later it passed over his head. Seemingly it had detected a greater threat.

Frustration filled the Nerghul. It had come so close. Another few steps and it would have achieved its goal. But it was not to be. The cowled demonic figure swept past his prey towards it. The Nerghul braced itself as the thing impacted upon it. A mass of enormously strong tentacles emerged from within the robes to grapple with it. The Nerghul mustered all of its strength to fight back.

Rik realised that Ilmarec’s demonic guardian had just saved his life, and he had no idea why. Perhaps it could detect the Nerghul and not him, which was a stroke of luck. Behind him the two hellish entities fought with a fury worse than that of rabid wolverines.

It looked as if the Nerghul was engulfed in a nest of snakes. It fought furiously to free itself as enormous ropes of muscle surrounded it and tried to crack its bones. When he looked closely Rik could see that many of those tentacles appeared to have sucker mouths that ripped at the Nerghul’s flesh, yet still it fought on. He tore his gaze away from the battle and returned it to Ilmarec. He had no time to waste on these two. He needed to get the Talisman and go. He strode towards the throne, sword in hand. Just as he reached Ilmarec, the wizard’s eyes snapped open. They had a strange glazed look but still there was something potent and commanding about them.

“Who are you?” Ilmarec asked. “How did you get passed the Shaa Khyraa and the wards?”

Rik shrugged and lied, as he edged closer. “Give me that amulet. I will let you live.” He wanted to distract Ilmarec, to prevent him from drawing on his magic until it was too late.

“Who are you to threaten me in my place of power?”

“This is not your place. It belongs to the Serpent Men. It has always belonged to them. You are an interloper here.”

Ilmarec tipped his head to one side and gazed at Rik with narrowed eyes. “I see you have been touched by their power. That old monster down below was wilier than I gave it credit for being. Somehow it has betrayed me.”

“It said the same thing about you.”

“You look like a human but you are not. You look like a Terrarch but you are not. What are you?”

“I am a half-breed.” Rik took another step closer.

“You are more than that. You would not have been able to pass my wards. I think you are some creation of Asea’s.”

Almost there, Rik thought. “Will you do as I asked or must I kill you?”

“You are very confident to threaten me. I could slay you with a spell.”

“If you wish to try, now is the right time.” Rik raised the blade and pointed it at Ilmarec.

A sly smile of triumph crossed the wizard’s face. He raised his clenched fist. A ring glittered on one finger. Rik found his gaze drawn to the ring’s depths. For a moment his sanity tottered and he felt the urge to do whatever he was told by the Terrarch.

“You will obey me, half-breed,” said Ilmarec. Desperately, Rik resisted, putting all the force of his will into making his limbs obey him.

“I don’t think so,” said Rik lunging forward. The poisoned blade pierced the wizard’s belly and he howled like a tortured dog, writhing on the floor. Rik reached down and ripped the Serpent Man’s talisman from around his neck.

“You idiot,” said the wizard. “You have destroyed us all.”

His eyes closed. He looked dead. Rik stabbed him again a few times just to make sure.


Chapter Twenty-Four

<p>Chapter Twenty-Four</p>

What now, Rik thought? He had the talisman the Serpent Man required. The question was whether he could trust it. He did not see what else he could do. He was trapped on the Tower. The Tower raced through the sky uncontrolled. If the Serpent Man had told the truth it was only a matter of time before the god’s heart exploded killing them all. As ever, it seemed, he had very little choice in the matter. He glanced back over his shoulder. The Nerghul still fought with Ilmarec’s tame demon.

He caught a flicker of movement from the corner of his eye. He turned, raising the sword to protect himself. A tall Terrarch woman entered the chamber. Rik recognised her from Asea’s portrait as Queen Kathea. She had entered through another door.

Understanding flooded into Kathea’s eyes. She looked at Ilmarec’s dead body and then at Rik, and then she screamed in horror. Rik strode forward and put his free hand over her mouth. He did not want her screams to attract either of the two monsters.

He spoke slowly and softly, “Your majesty, I mean you no harm.”

A small muscle pulsed in her jaw, he could feel it. He kept speaking as quietly and persuasively as he could. “Nod if you understand what I am saying.”

She nodded.

“I have come here to free you, and to take you to Lord Azaar’s army. There are some problems. We need to get out of the Tower. You need to follow me.” He uncovered her mouth.

“We can’t get out of the Tower. It’s in flight and Ilmarec was the only one who could control it. We are all doomed.”

“There is another.”

“You lie.”

“Your majesty. You can stay here if you wish and you will certainly die, or you can come with me, and you may yet live. Which is it going to be?” Her response surprised Rik.

She walked over to Ilmarec’s corpse and started kicking it.

“Bastard,” she shouted. “Stupid, treacherous bastard. I knew it would all go wrong.”

“Your majesty, we don’t have very much time.”

The kicking ended and sobbing returned. “Are you ready to go, your majesty?”

“Let’s go,” she said. Her voice was calm, icy, in control. Her eyes were wet with tears, but her face was frozen into the formal mask of a Terrarch princess. “Lead the way.”

“It will be my pleasure.” He gestured at where the two demons fought. “Run past those two things as fast as you can go!”

The Nerghul felt the first faint stirrings of fear. Not for itself, but that it might not be able to complete its mission. The creature it fought was strong, quite the strongest thing it had ever encountered. The suckered tentacles sheared flesh from its bones. Worse than that, their icy touch seemed to be sucking all the animating energy from the Nerghul. It was weakened and depleted in a way it had never felt before. Nonetheless, it was not going to give up. It writhed and pushed against the demon’s embrace, sinking its own talons into the rubbery skin.

Just then, it sensed a death in the next chamber. The demon’s hold weakened slightly. The Nerghul twisted an arm free and reached forward grabbing a handful of its opponent’s eyestalks. Exerting all its might, it tugged them free. The demon’s struggles became weaker. The Nerghul bit and gouged at its flesh. Long minutes passed as its foe became weaker. The Nerghul sensed victory as the demon began to dissolve into slimy protoplasm.

It turned to pick up the scent once more.

Rik led Kathea down through the winding corridors. He ran as fast as he could and still maintain a sense of direction. He feared that every second would be his last. In his mind’s eye, he pictured a great sunburst explosion tearing the Tower apart. He pictured it ploughing into the ground with enough force to kill everybody on board. It was all he could do to keep his racing monkey fears under control and recall the path back to the Serpent Man’s vault. He prayed as he had not prayed since his youth that they would be in time, and that the creature had not been deceiving him.

The Nerghul pulled itself along. It was badly hurt. Chunks had been torn out of its leg, so it limped, supporting itself with its arms. It needed time to heal but it wanted so badly to kill its prey, to savour the taste of fulfilment that it could not stop. It forced itself to move on. Its target seemed to be heading back the way it came. It was only a matter of time before it overtook it.

The great loops of moving pathway carried Rik along the convoluted way into the heart of the Tower, past empty chambers full of strange moulded machines. Incomprehensible runes scrolled past on the floor beneath his feet. The light burned dim and green and the warm fusty atmosphere grew more intense. Kathea looked at him.

“What was that?”

Rik listened. He thought he heard the echo of something moving, coming from behind them.

“I think we are being followed. One of the demons must have survived.”

“I thought the thing that attacked the Shaa Khyraa was your ally.”

“I regret not.”

“Then you should be afraid. The Shaa Khyraa would not long survive Ilmarec’s death. His soul was what bound it to our plane of existence.”

Rik thought about the Nerghul. The creature seemed destined to dog his footsteps. There appeared to be no way to escape it. He smiled with grim humour. It was a race between the destruction of the Tower and the undead demon to see which would kill him. He thought for a moment that he had entered a place beyond fear then realised it was the effect of the combat drugs.

“Why are you smiling?”

“I wish to hell I knew.”

They came at last to the chamber of the sarcophagus and stood before the Serpent Man. Its gaze met his. The process was smoother this time and far less terrifying and he found establishing mental contact with the Elder One much easier.

You have returned.

I have, and I have kept my part of the bargain.

I see that. You have done well, human, and I am grateful to you. A sense of the Serpent Man’s weariness and sorrow entered him.

What must I do now, Rik asked.

It is too late to save the Tower. The wizard has started a process that cannot now be reversed.

Then we must all die.

No, I can save you and the woman. I can save the lands below.

Why would you do that? We have not been kind to you? The thoughts came out before Rik could stop them. He knew he was wasting time but still he waited for an answer. There was nothing else he could do now anyway.

I am the last of my kind on this world. The others have gone. They may be dead or they may be returned to the stars but they are nowhere within hailing distance of this vessel. I cannot join them. I am dying anyway. I would not needlessly kill others.

You do not want revenge.

You have killed the only one I would be revenged on. I owe you a debt. I will repay it. You have done what was needful and I thank you for it.

Hope leapt in Rik’s heart. There was just the slightest possibility he would get out of this alive after all. What must I do?

Place the amulet round your neck and command the Sarcophagus to open. Images of the command procedures, the swift, strange shifts of mind needed to open the way flickered through his brain. Rik followed them, and the lid of the Serpent Man’s coffin hissed open. It split into two and the crystal sections withdrew into the stonework, leaving the Serpent Man exposed to the air. Thousands of tiny filaments withdrew into the walls of the coffin. Slowly, weakly, like one who has not moved in a thousand years and whose limbs were barely responding, the Serpent Man drew himself upright. Rik moved to help him. He lifted the ancient being up. It was as light as a child, almost weightless. Rik wondered if its bones were hollow like a birds.

Thank you, the Serpent Man said, his words echoing deep inside Rik’s mind. You have my gratitude. There were several layers of alien meaning underlying the words that Rik could not decipher so he helped the ancient one to the altar it had indicated and placed him on it.

Put the amulet around my neck then you and your companion must get inside my sarcophagus. Rik’s mind baulked. He did not want to take the Serpent Man’s place in his tomb.

Do it. We do not have time to argue. I am dying quickly now and there is much I need to do. If you would live you must get into the coffin.

Gently Rik placed the Serpent Man down on the altar. He gestured to the sarcophagus.

“Get in,” he told Kathea. She just looked at him in panic. “Get in. We don’t have time to argue.”

“It’s a trick,” she said. “It just wants us to take its place.”

The coffin did not just preserve my life. It was an escape mechanism in case something went wrong with the vessel.

Looking over his shoulder, Rik saw something that filled him with dread. The Nerghul had dragged itself into the chamber. He did not want to face it. He clambered into the coffin. Reluctantly, seeing what he had seen, Kathea did the same.

Before the crystal dome of the sarcophagus slid shut, the undead monster emitted what sounded like a horrible scream. It held a world of frustration and horror. The voice of the Serpent Man spoke within his head.

There is one thing you can do for me.

“If I can, I will,” he said aloud.

There are none left to speak the rights for me in the Ancient Tongue of my people so if all fails I may not be able to enter the Nest of my ancestors. At the full of your moon, remember me, and speak my name in a high place, and perhaps they will hear me, and forgive me.

“I do not know your name.”

It is Shang Tach.

“I will remember you, Shang Tach. My name is Rik.”

The hideous face of the Nerghul pressed itself against the coffin lid. It was directly opposite Rik’s own. He looked into its red eyes and saw the hunger there. It opened its torn mouth and grinned in triumph. Its claws scrabbled on the crystal seeking to break it.

Suddenly the sarcophagus tipped backwards and began to slide down a dark tunnel. The Nerghul held on, although it was crushed and flattened between the tunnel wall and the coffin. As the sarcophagus moved, it picked up speed. Kathea held Rik tight and whimpered in his ear. He did the same back.

A horrible sensation of vertigo filled him. They raced through the tunnels, going ever faster. The tunnel walls glowed greenly. Rik suspected they were not moving quite as fast as they ought to since the pulpy mass of the undead creature must be providing some drag. The thing looked boneless now, partially jellied but still its lips moved and its eyes blazed with hellish hatred.

They were out into night and darkness. Above them, beyond the Nerghul’s shattered features, the Tower glowed massively, receding into the distance, rising on a pillar of green light into the outer darkness. It glowed as brightly as the sun at noon, and Rik wondered how long it would be till the explosion ripped it apart.

His own heart threatened to tear its way out of his ribcage. He was uncomfortably aware that these were the last few seconds of his life. There was no way he and Kathea could survive hitting the ground from this height without being turned into so much jelly by the force of impact. Already he could picture the ground rising to meet them.

Suddenly visibility was blocked by grey mist. Had they died already and entered the netherworld, he wondered? It took him a few seconds to realise that it was only the clouds. They must be moving with terrible speed. As they exited from them, the cloud’s underbelly became visible.

Rain slapped against the crystal now, and looked like tears running down the nightmare face of the Nerghul. Somehow, it still managed to cling to the sarcophagus.

“We’re going to die,” whimpered Kathea. Rik did not disagree with her. The sarcophagus had started to rotate. He could see lights below them now and in the distance. It looked like they had not moved as far from Morven as he thought. Or perhaps this was some other town entirely. The sight of the ground, such a long way below, made his stomach heave. He fought down the urge to vomit. It would be a disaster in enclosed space like this.

The earth rose was appalling speed to greet them. Rik found himself shouting the words of the prayers he had learned in the orphanage as he waited for death to embrace him.

He could see woods now, then the tops of individual trees. He thought that should not be possible but then realised that the sarcophagus was emitting its own peculiar green glow. Their motion slowed and they smashed through the upper branches then there was a sudden shock as they impacted on the earth below.

Rik exhaled. He was still alive. Then another horrific thought occurred to him. What if the coffin did not open? They were trapped within it with an ever dwindling supply of air. There was a hissing sound, and the crystal clouded over. He pushed against it and it opened, and he stepped out into the warm air of the summer night. The future Queen of Kharadrea stumbled out by his side.

He glanced skyward, through the space the sarcophagus had cleared as it ploughed through the greenery, and saw only clouds. Suddenly, there was a flash of enormous brightness and what seemed like a green sun appeared to glow brightly above and behind the clouds, making them seem like an enormous green roof over the world. The glow lingered for a long time before it vanished, and Rik knew that the god’s heart had broken and the Serpent Tower was no more.

He turned to Kathea. “Come on,” he said. “We’d better get you out of here.”

The Queen of Kharadrea sobbed aloud in fear and pointed to the ground behind him. Rik felt something grasping for his leg and looked down to see the monster that had dogged him was trapped beneath the sarcophagus. Already, with terrible fiendish strength it was forcing its broken limbs to move, to try and raise the coffin. Its limbs flopped horribly, as if bone had been turned to jelly, but still it moved.

Filled with the crystal calm of the drug, Rik drew his sword, bent down and began to saw off its head. Once the Queen of Kharadrea had calmed down she helped him build a fire and burn it.

After it was done Rik said, “Come on, Your Majesty, let’s get you back to the army and put you on your throne.”