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By James Barclay
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2009 James Barclay
All right reserved.
Chapter OneIt would be a glorious victory. Lord Senedai of the Heystron Tribes stood on a raised platform watching the smoke billowing over Julatsa as building after building was put to flame. The acrid smell of the smoke was beautiful in his nostrils and through the fog it created, he could see the white and black fire his Shamen wielded through linkage with the Wytch Lords, tearing what was left of the city's heart to shreds. And there was nothing the Julatsans could do to stop them.
Ripping from their fingers and gnawing at the stone and woodwork of the once proud College city, the white fire issued from the fingertips of a hundred Shamen, demolishing building, fence and barricade. And where men and women ran in terror, the black fire picked the flesh from their bones and gouged the eyes from their skulls while they fell screaming to die in agony.
Senedai felt no sympathy. He leapt from the platform and yelled his Lieutenants to him. All that held up his progress to the College itself were the mages who still shielded great swathes of the city borders and the enemy soldiers who protected the mages from the swords of his warriors. It was time to put a stop to this irritating resistance.
As he ran toward the battle, issuing orders and watching the standards and banners sway as tribes ran to do his bidding, a wall of flame erupted ahead, the spell detonation rippling through the ground as the targets, all Shamen, were engulfed and died without a sound of their own.
"Press! Press!" he yelled. But this close the noise, muted to a roar only a hundred yards away, was as deafening as it was distinct. He could hear individual sword clashes, the cries of panic, fear and pain. He could hear bellowed orders, desperate and confident, and he could hear the thud of metal on leather, the tumbling of stone and the cracking of timber.
Beside him, his warrior guard ran a crescent of protection while he kept himself just out of bow range as did all but his most foolhardy of Shamen. The line of Julatsans was thin to the point of collapse and Senedai knew that once pierced, there would be a route straight through to the walls of the College itself.
Horns blew and his warriors surged again. Behind the enemy lines, mages were torn to shreds by the black fire, even as they spoke their spells of protection. He could taste the anguish of his foe and his Wesmen axes rose and fell, showering blood into the smoke-muddied sky.
"I want those mages to the right destroyed!" he shouted at a lieutenant. "See it is signalled immediately." The ground heaved with Julatsan magic, cold air blasted through the warmth of the day and the sky rained drops of fire, his tribesmen paying dearly for every pace they took.
A detachment of Shamen broke and ran right, arrows peppering the ground where they moved. One fell, a shaft buried deep in his thigh. He was left to writhe. Senedai watched them go, felt a thrill when their hands and mouths moved, summoning the fire from deep within the black souls of the Wytch Lords to project its hideous power on helpless victims.
But as he watched, he felt a change. The fire pulsing from outstretched fingers guttered, strengthened briefly, flickered and died. A ripple spread across the tribes. From every part of the battle ground, shouts were raised and Shamen stared at their hands and each other, incomprehension and fear on bleak faces.
From the enemy, a cheer, gaining in intensity, swept along the defensive line. Immediately, the barrage of spells increased and the defenders pushed into the confusion that gripped his warriors. They fell back.
"My Lord?" ventured a Captain. Senedai turned to the man, whose face held anxiety not fit for a Wesmen warrior, and found a rage boiling inside him. His gaze swept back across his failing attack, taking in the magic that blasted his men and the swords of the exhausted defence that fell with renewed energy and determination. He pushed the Captain aside and ran forward, heedless of the risk.
"By all the Spirits, are we not warriors?" he bellowed into the roar of battle. "Horns, sound the attack! All fronts. Magic be damned, we fight with steel. Attack, you bastards, attack!" He crashed into the battle, his axe ploughing through the shoulder of a defending Julatsan. The man collapsed and Senedai trod on the corpse, ripping the axe clear to bat it side-on into the face of the next enemy. Around him, the tribesmen responded, picking up songs of battle as they surged again.
Horns sounded new orders, wavering standards straightened in the hands of their bearers and moved forward again. The Wesmen poured back into the battle for Julatsa, ignoring the spells that handed out death and maiming injury indiscriminately, and seeing the defenders begin to wilt at the ferocity of the onslaught.
Lord Senedai dared a look either way along the lines and smiled. Many warriors would die without the Wytch Lords' fire but the day, he determined, would still belong to the Wesmen. Noting the positions of the knots of offensive casting mages, he slapped aside a clumsy thrust and forged back into the fray.
The Raven stood in silence in Parve's central square. The battle was won. Dawnthief had been cast, the Wytch Lords destroyed and their city once more a place of the dead. Above them, the aftereffect of Dawnthief hung in the sky, brown and modulating, an alien and malevolent stain suspended like some predatory beast above the land of Balaia. It was the dimensional rip to nowhere.
Away across the square, Darrick and the remnants of the four-College cavalry had destroyed any remaining resistance and now piled bodies onto makeshift pyres; Wytch Lord acolytes, Wesmen and Guardians in one area, their own fallen in another, and the reverence with which dead cavalrymen were handled was in stark contrast to the dragging and throwing of enemy corpses. Styliann and the Protectors were in the blasted pyramid, searching the rubble for anything that might gives clues to the ancients' brief but cataclysmic return to power.
The silence in the square was palpable. None of Darrick's men spoke as they went about their sombre task; the sky under the rip was bereft of birds and the breeze that gusted across the open space seemed muted to a whisper as it coiled around Parve's buildings.
And for The Raven, victory was once again tarnished by loss.
Denser leaned heavily on Hirad, Erienne at his other side, her arm about his waist. Ilkar stood by the barbarian. Opposite them, across the grave, Will, Thraun and The Unknown Warrior. All of them gazed down at the shrouded form of Jandyr. The elf's bow lay the length of his body, his sword from chin to knees.
Sadness echoed its quiet around The Raven. At the moment of triumph, life had been taken from Jandyr. After everything he had survived, his was an unkind fate.
For Ilkar, the loss was keen. Elves were not numerous in Balaia, preferring as a rule the heat of the Southern Lands. Few now travelled to the Northern Continent excepting those called by magic and even their numbers were dwindling. They could ill afford to lose elves like Jandyr. But the grief was felt most personally by Will and Thraun. Their long-time friend had died in the service of Balaia and The Raven. What had begun as a simple rescue had finished on the steps of the Wytch Lords' tomb at the end of a desperate chase to find and cast the only spell that could save Balaia from the ancient evil. Yet Jandyr had died not knowing the outcome of the casting of Dawnthief. Life could be cruel. Mistimed death more so.
The Unknown intoned The Raven's words of parting. "By north, by east, by south, by west. Though you are gone, you will always be Raven and we shall always remember. Balaia will never forget the sacrifice you made. The Gods will smile on your soul. Farewell in whatever faces you now and ever."
Will nodded. "Thank you," he said. "Your respect and honour are truly appreciated. Now Thraun and I need time alone with him."
"Naturally," said Ilkar. He moved away.
"I'll stay a little longer," said Erienne, disentangling herself from Denser. "After all, he came to rescue my family." Will nodded and she knelt by the graveside, joining the thief and Thraun, the shapechanger, in their regrets and hopes.
The Unknown, Hirad and Denser caught up with Ilkar and the quartet sat in the lee of the pyramid tunnel, the rip above and behind them, its presence huge and menacing. Further out in the central square, Darrick's men continued piling bodies ready for the pyres. Great slicks of dried blood swathed the paving stones and here and there, pieces of torn clothing blew and ruffled in the warm breeze. Styliann and the Protectors remained inside the pyramid, no doubt dissecting every rune, painting and mosaic.
General Ry Darrick walked over and joined them as The Unknown finished passing around mugs of coffee from Will's bubbling pan. There was a brief quiet.
"I almost hate to bring this up," said Darrick. "But great as the victory is, we number perhaps three hundred and there are a good fifty thousand Wesmen between here and our homes."
"Funny isn't it?" said Ilkar. "You think about all we've achieved and the result is that we've given Balaia a chance and no more. Nothing is certain."
"So much for basking in glory," said Hirad.
"Don't understate what we've done," said Denser from his prone position, hands under his head. "We have removed the certainty of the Wytch Lords' triumph and their dominion over Balaia. And more than that, we've destroyed them and given ourselves real hope. Bask in that."
"I'll try," said Hirad, the smile returning to his face.
"Remember," said Denser. "The Wesmen have no magic."
"And we have no armies," said Ilkar.
"I wonder if there'll be anything left to return to?" mused The Unknown.
"A Communion would help to clarify a few things," agreed Denser.
"Thanks for your input, Denser," said Ilkar. "Why don't you sleep it off?"
"Just saying," said the Xeteskian Mage sharply.
"I think we're a little far from Understone, don't you?" Ilkar patted him on the shoulder.
"Selyn did it." It was Styliann. The Raven started and turned. The Lord of the Mount of Xetesk walked out of the shadow of the pyramid tunnel. The Protectors remained deep inside. He looked pale and tired, his hair lank about his shoulders, the braid holding his ponytail long since gone.
"May I?" He gestured at the pot. The Unknown shrugged and nodded. Styliann ladled out a mug of coffee and sat with The Raven.
"I've been thinking," he said.
"Is there no end to your talents?" muttered Denser.
Styliann's eyes flashed. "The Dawnthief catalysts may be destroyed, Denser, but I am still your commanding mage. You would do well to remember that." He paused. "Selyn was a Communion specialist. She reported large forces of Wesmen leaving Parve in the direction of Understone just before she entered the city. They will not have reached Understone yet so we have them to face before we reach the pass." Styliann's jaw set as if his next words were battling not to be heard. "For now, we should work together."
The atmosphere cooled. The Unknown spoke. "Your last intercession, though welcome, was hardly a determined effort to help. Before that, you tried to kill us all. Tried to turn the Protectors against me. Now you want us to work together." The Unknown looked away into the pyramid, his face troubled.
"We got here without your help. We'll get back without it," said Hirad.
Styliann regarded them calmly, the hint of a smile playing over his lips.
"You're good, I'll grant you that," he said. "But you are overlooking the severity of your situation. The Raven will never reach the East unaided. Remember, Understone Pass was opened for you but is now almost certainly closed. I have the Communion range and contacts to organise passage. You do not and Darrick ultimately reports to me and the four Colleges."
"Doesn't sound like you need us at all," said Hirad. Styliann smiled.
"One can always use The Raven."
The Unknown nodded slightly. "You have an idea, I presume?"
"A route, yes; the tactics I'll leave to the General." He looked across at Darrick who had remained silent throughout the exchange, his expression changing only by a hair at the reminder of his position in the chain of command.
"Perhaps you'd better tell us your route, my Lord," said Darrick.
Hirad's head was thumping. He needed a drink. Alcohol, preferably, to chase away the pain for a while. He lurched to his feet, making for the fire.
"You all right, Hirad?" asked Ilkar.
"Not really," he replied. "My head's killing me." A cold sensation cascaded through his back, like snow shaken from the bough of a tree, gone as soon as it had come. There was a change in the air, a movement that had nothing to do with the breeze blowing warmly about them.
Hirad stopped, looking up into the sky, clear blue but for the huge rip modulating gently. As he watched, the mottled brown surface rippled violently, bubbled, punched outward and tore for a split second. A barking roar shattered the relative peace of the afternoon. Triumphant, apocalyptic, terrible.
Hirad screamed, turned and ran away blindly in the direction of the eastern forest miles away, every fear he had harboured since his encounter with Sha-Kaan realised in an instant.
So soon after victory, they faced ultimate defeat and total destruction. There was a dragon in the skies of Balaia.
It was the way he liked it best-the way of the sword. Wesmen were warriors, not mages. And though the Wytch Lords' power had seen them to victories more quickly than he had dared hope, the Lord Tessaya was confident they would have triumphed even without the white and black fires.
Now that magic, borrowed, stolen, gifted, call it what you will, was gone. The Shamen no longer held sway and the Wesmen belonged to their tribal lords once more. It was at once terrifying and exciting. Should the unity crumble, they would be swept back across the Blackthorne Mountains by the armies of the four Colleges. If he could hold them together, Tessaya believed they could take Korina and with the capture of the capital city would come the heart, soul and wealth of Eastern Balaia.
But he had to fear the Colleges against whom they now had no defence. His dream of seeing the Towers of Xetesk burn had gone, at least for now. A wry smile touched his weather-worn, deeply tanned face. There were other ways of fighting mages.
Defeat was never an option for Tessaya. Particularly when he was drinking in the glow of recent victory. And victory against mages.
Panic had threatened to engulf the thousands pouring through Understone Pass as word had spread that the Shamen had lost their link to the Wytch Lords. But Tessaya, in unwitting mirror to Senedai far away in Julatsa, had stilled the unrest, choosing to run at the head of the Wesmen pack as it exploded into the sunlight of the East.
The College army knew they were coming but was hopelessly outnumbered. Wave after wave of Wesmen had torn into the lines, their howls drowning the screamed orders, the cries of fear and the wailing of the dying. With Tessaya leading, they were unstoppable, the blood of victory pounding in their heads, their swords and axes slicing flesh and splintering bone. The front line had been stubborn but, with their bodies littering the mud in front of the pass, and the mage support destroyed, it was little more than an organised slaughter, which left Tessaya disappointed.
Sitting in Understone's inn, now cleared of bodies, he recalled the fight, the elementary defensive mistakes and the confusion of orders that reached his ears. But most of all he remembered those who had run and those who had cast up their arms and surrendered before hope was truly lost. So different from the fight at the western end of Understone Pass. There he had seen an enemy organised and prepared to fight to the last man. An enemy that had held his armies for longer than it had any right to. An enemy he could respect.
But what disappointed him most was the failure of the General, whom Tessaya had been informed was in charge at Understone Town, to live up to his reputation. Shame. He should have been another exciting adversary. As it was, he had proved as much a coward as the rest. Darrick was a name the Wesmen would quickly forget to fear.
The door to the inn opened and his elder Shaman walked in. Without the Wytch Lords' power he was no longer a man Tessaya had to watch but the Lord of the Paleon tribes bore him no less respect.
Tessaya poured him a drink, the two men sitting across a table in the shadows at the rear of the building.
"You're looking tired, Arnoan."
"It's been a long day, my Lord."
"But over now, by the sounds of it." The noise of celebration was building.
"How are your injuries?" asked Arnoan.
"I'll live." Tessaya smiled, amused by Arnoan's fatherly concern. The burn down his right forearm was sore and blistered but treated, clean and dressed. He had been quick in the dive as the FlameOrb had splashed, so had lived.
Excerpted from Noonshade by James Barclay Copyright © 2009 by James Barclay. Excerpted by permission.
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