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The Righteous Blade Book Two of The Dreamtime
By Stan Nicholls
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Stan Nicholls
All right reserved.
There had been no reprieve for reality. It remained in abeyance.
The night-time city was smothered by a dense fog that choked sound but only dimmed the constant discharge of magic. The gleam of sorcery pulsed and sparkled. Phantasms were on the wing, apparitions walked abroad.
A young man shuffled through the damp streets. He was bundled against the autumnal chill, collar up, battered cap pulled well down, a few unruly wisps of blond hair poking from underneath the brim.
He couldn't see. His eyes were covered by a contrivance resembling a leather mask, with two round patches, tied fast. Behind each patch was a coin, wrapped in wadding.
In one hand he held a cane, and used it to tap his uncertain way. In the other he grasped a leash, tightly coiled. This was attached to a halter girdling the shiny black carapace of a millipede --a creature the size of a large hunting dog. It moved sinuously, huge insectoid eyes set in an unblinking gaze, its multitude of twiggy legs rippling in unison.
The youth was anxious. He reckoned he was in a less than salubrious quarter, and he'd lost track of the time. Rapping his stick left to right, he walked falteringly, as though newly sightless. The millipede strained at its leash, probing, snuffling, guiding its charge around obstructions. The young man tried to hurry.
Had he been able to see, he would have regarded the blizzard of magic on every side as of little account. It was too ordinary. But another sight might have given him pause. Ahead of him, a pair of lights bobbed in the murk, and they were getting closer.
He was aware of a sound. Tugging the millipede to a halt, he stopped and listened, head tilted to one side, his eye patches like dark hollows. He heard the steady crump of boots on cobblestones. A small group, marching in unison. Coming his way.
His sense of unease increased and he thought of hiding. Lifting a hand to his mask, he made to peel it off.
'You, there! Don't move!'
The rasp of blades being drawn underlined the warning.
Breath stilled, the youth froze. The millipede scuttled back to him, brushing his calves as a frightened cat might do, for solace.
From out of the swirling, yellowish mist came a band of men. Foremost was a three-strong watch patrol in grey uniforms. Beside them, his scarlet tunic contrasting with their drabness, strode a paladin clansman. The patrol's requisite sorcerer brought up the rear, dressed in tan robes and bearing an ornamented staff. Two of the watch held charmed lanterns, bathing the scene in a soft, magical glow.
'Drop the weapon!'
He realised they meant the cane, and let it slip from his fingers. The clatter it made was all the louder in the taut silence.
They approached him warily.
'Don't you know there's a curfew?'
The speaker was the watch captain, grizzle-faced and lanky.
Despite the cold, his arms were bare. One was tattooed with a rampant, fire-spitting dragon, emblem of Gath Tampoor, the prevailing empire.
Still masked, the youth said nothing.
'Lost your tongue too, have you?'
'I'm sorry, I D'
'You're breaking the curfew,' the paladin barked. 'Why?'
The young man swung towards the new voice, swallowing hard. 'I D misjudged the hour. I thought -- '
'That's no excuse,' the watchman snapped.
'Any more than being blind,' somebody added gruffly.
'But I'm -- '
'Ignorance is no defence,' the paladin recited. 'The law's the law.'
Someone elbowed his ribs, making him wince. 'What're you doing here?'
'Where're you from?' asked another, breathing the fetid odour of cheap pipe tobacco.
'Who brought you?' rasped a third, his mouth unnervingly close to the youth's ear.
He reeled under the barrage of questions. Floundering, he tried to answer, tried to placate them. But they were as bent on harassment as interrogation.
The captain eyed the millipede. 'Where did you get a glamour this expensive?'
'It was a gift,' the young man lied.
'And who would you know with that kind of wealth?'
He didn't reply.
'Can you prove ownership?' the clansman pressed.
'As I said, it was -- '
'Then we have the right.'
The clansman nodded at the sorcerer. Gravely, he produced a long-bladed silver knife, embellished and fortified with spells, and offered it hilt first. The watch captain took it.
'If you can't prove,' the watchman said, 'you can't keep.'
'Please, don't D' the youth implored.
The millipede looked up with doleful eyes.
Stooping, the captain raised the knife, then plunged it into the creature's back.
A myriad cracks appeared on the insect's husk. It bled light. Thin needles at first, piercing the gloom in all directions. A second later, shafts; intense as summer sun and just as dazzling. The millipede turned translucent, no more than a hollow outline, before melting into a silvery haze which flickered briefly, and went out.
The glamour died.
A little inrush of air filled the vacuum it left, and the leash the young man clutched hung slack, its collar vacant.
His persecutors mocked him with laugher.
'There was no need,' he protested weakly.
'You can't account for yourself and you're in violation of the curfew,' the paladin told him. 'We're taking you in.'
'C'mon.' The watch captain laid a rough hand on the youth.
'I won't!' the young man blurted, trying to shake himself loose.
'I mean D it was just a mistake. I didn't know I'd broken the law and -- '
The watchman cuffed him, hard. It was enough to make the youth stagger.
'You speak when you're spoken to.'
A red welt coloured the youth's cheek, a trickle of blood snaked from the corner of his mouth. He braced himself for another blow.
'And you address us with the respect we're due,' the watchman added, raising his fist again.
'Take your filthy hands off him.'
A figure emerged from the fog. He was tall and dark. His flowing cloak made him look like some kind of giant winged beast.
Excerpted from The Righteous Blade by Stan Nicholls Copyright © 2005 by Stan Nicholls. Excerpted by permission.
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