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BLACKTHORN: SPIRES OF MARS
The online serial novel
by I.A. Watson


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


1.     A NIGHT IN THE DEADFIELDS

    Tybald tan Throg had learned to dread the coming of night. As the small orange sun sneaked ever lower in the west the weary young man assessed his options.

    The grassless dirt trail forked ahead. One track led him down into a dark tangle of dead trees. Their wooden skeletons formed a thick mat as far northwest as it was possible to see in the omnipresent grey haze. The other way snaked off the high ground to a small ruined settlement by some dark turgid stream.

    It was the water that decided Tybald. He coaxed his exhausted horse down the steep cliff path, second-guessing himself all the way. Would this be the route the raiders had come? Would there be anything still growing in the poisoned soil of the broken village that would feed his tired mount – or himself? What might the shattered roofless houses conceal that awoke and hunted once the sun was gone?

    These were the constant questions of a man traversing the Deadfields of Hesperia. Some claimed that with the right guide who knew the wardstone paths and a strong enough bundle of amulets and counter-crystals it was possible to travel with relative safety over the desolate hinterland. Tybald believed it even less now than he had six days before when he’d begun his ride.

    Not all the rumours about the place were true. The young traveller had brought down a rabbit two days ago, proving that there was life amongst the abandoned war-wrecked ruins. But then the dead animal had shuddered unsteadily onto its feet and attacked him until he had stamped it so flat that it no longer had bones to support its twitching muscles.

    Anything that died in the Deadfields did not stay dead. When the very provisions he had brought in his supply pouch had begin to twitch on the third day of the journey Tybald had abandoned all but the hard tack biscuit and everberries.

    The ruined village had not been large. Nine domestic dwellings and three barns clustered round the burned frame of a water-wheel that must once have powered the circular tower of a mill. The protective hedge around the site was leafless and dead, of course, but had somehow also grown wild and aggressive. Barbed creepers snaked sixty feet out from the impenetrable thicket.

    Tybald began to think twice about refuge in the ruins. He looked to see whether his horse had any preference. On his second night in Hesperia the animal had saved his life by baulking to settle in the shell of a chapel. When the fleshless dead had crawled from the boneyard at sunset Tybald had understood why. But now his steed was almost dead itself, too far gone to object to whatever torment or danger it was forced to endure.

    The sun was almost down, a mere meniscus over the rocky ridge to the traveller’s west. It was too late for any other course. Tybald drew his vibra-sword, slashed a path to the settlement’s original gates, and made his way inside.

    There was no time for a comprehensive search. The darkening shadows seemed eager to follow the lone traveller. The desolate house-shells concealed whatever horror stories they had to tell. Presumably here as everywhere in the Deadfields the last struggle between the living and the undead had ended badly for those clinging to life.

    Tybald made for the mill-tower. It was mostly intact, a squat defensible structure with slit-windows and three-foot thick walls. The roof was gone, leaving the top storey open to the bleak darkening sky. The upper floor was mostly still intact, though the rotten boards creaked and threatened under the explorer’s weight. Satisfied that there was no better place to hide out, the traveller located the remains of the door, jammed it back in place to block the entrance, and used what timbers he could find to wedge it.

    Only then did Tybald allow himself to relax for a moment. He unharnessed his horse and offered it the meagre last of the oats he’d packed for it. He gathered broken furniture to start a fire – an essential survival tool in the Deadfields night. He allowed himself another handful of berries and the last-but-two wafer in his provisions.

    I should have come better prepared, he reflected. But if he had waited the chances of finding the raiders would have gone from slim to none.

    Tybald ignited the camp-fire and squatted to catch its heat. Hesperia always seemed cold. The omnipresent mists sucked the warmth from the living. The young traveller reflected again on what terrible weapon of war could so corrupt a land that the dead there could never rest.

    The Lord of Night is a terrible man – a terrible thing, Tybald thought. All four of the First Men, the Sorcerers who ruled Mars and fought each other in constant endless wars, were ruthless, lethal, pitiless tyrants; but surely the necromancer who bound men’s souls even after death was the worst of them all? My sister must not go to him

    He thought again of Ysilde, scarcely sixteen years old, ambushed by reavers on the road to her father’s own court; of family retainers that Tybald had known all his life cut down; and of the innocent girl dragged away to be sold as tribute to the Lord of Night. So fair and pure a noble’s daughter would fetch a high price at market from any house that sought the favour of the Ruler of the East or strove to save a daughter of its own from being selected as a Bride of Night.

    So Tybald had ridden to rescue Ysilde; but that was six days ago and a hundred and forty miles. The last trace of horsemen he’d found was two days back now. He could not chase on much further.

    A movement snapped the lord’s son out of his reverie. He froze and listened. A stealthy scrape on the outer wall warned him that he was not alone.

    He reached for his vibra-sword. The electric weapon slid smoothly out of its harness, a thin rapier-blade with a powered handle that enhanced its sharpness until it could cut through steel. It was a noble’s weapon, expensive and deadly, and Tybald tan Throg was happy just then for every painful lesson his father’s trainer had put him through on the practice square.

    Another sound. Tybald looked up. Something was climbing up the outside of the wall!

    The young traveller perceived his error – too late! He had assumed that blocking the door made this mill-tower defensible. If there were creatures abroad that could climb stone walls like spiders and pour over the lip to the space inside then he had sealed himself into a killing zone!

    The first interloper topped the wall. It slithered down and dropped on the wormy timbers of the upper platform. Tybald saw its wet squelchy feet pressing between the gaps in the planking. A second creature joined it, then a third and fourth.

    These creatures hunt in packs, Tybald thought. They have some intelligence. He reached for a brand from the fire.

    The horse scented danger. It stamped and neighed, frightened and uncertain. Join the club, Tybald thought.

    The attack came suddenly and swift. Three creatures hurled themselves through the ladder-hatch right at the lord’s son. Two more tore up planks to drop behind their prey. Another pair squirmed through gaps in the damaged floorboards and fell upon the panicking horse.

    Tybald lashed out with his vibra-blade. A hand that had grasped his cloak span away, severed but twitching. The youngster’s reverse slash took off a head. He jabbed his brand forward and hoped these slimy sodden dark things could burn.

    They didn’t. The torch was jerked away from him. It skittered off and rolled away. Dying flame picked out the horse’s corpse. Even as ghouls devoured the stallion’s flesh it was jerking back to tormented unlife.

    Tybald slashed again, slicing the nearest undead in two. Another still clawed the lordling’s shoulder. A third bit his leg.

    The traveller shook them off, furious and disgusted. The ghouls ringed him, too many and too hungry.

    Tybald backed to the wall and looked around. He’d blocked the door too well. There was no quick escape that way. The only other exit was the hatch to the upper floor and then over the tower’s rim.

    Tybald feinted left but cast his cloak over his campfire. The ashes scattered, causing the ghouls to dance back. The fabric of the travel-cape ignited, making the fire soar up for a moment.

    The desperate lordling used the distraction to scramble for the ladder. He kicked away one ghoul, shook off another that gashed his side, and hauled himself onto the gallery. The creatures swarmed after him, a silent tide of hungry death. Tybald wondered what kind of creature he would become when they killed him? Would he be one of them, or would there be no flesh left to animate, leaving him one of the shambling ambulatory skeletons he’d outdistanced yesterday?

    He jumped for the rim of the tower, trying to remember which side the water was on. He didn’t know if it would be deep enough to receive him but it was his only hope. He leaped blind, falling in the dark.

    He hit the stream badly, flopping down and hitting the silty bottom before bobbing back to the surface. The impact knocked the breath out of him. He could barely stand.

    He heard the splashes of other shapes hitting the water. The ghouls landed smoothly and easily, at home in the tainted beck. Tybald realised now where these undead sheltered when the sun was up.

    He staggered to the far bank. The ghouls were right behind him. He shrugged off the tunic they caught and turned at bay, slashing at his predators by the pale light of his vibra-blade.

    He realised that he was going to die. He realised that he had failed Ysilde; her fate would be worse than his.

    The creatures pressed all around him. Clammy hands with sharp nails pulled him down.

    The whole riverbank lit up with a dazzling light. For the first time the slimy creatures were picked out in perfect clarity, emaciated skulls on wasted bodies, blackened skin with webbed fingers and toes, needle teeth and wide lidless eyes.

    The ghouls did not like the light. They flinched away, clawing at their faces as if burned.

    Another monster came out of the forest. This one howled, a ferocious battle-cry to chill the bravest of adversaries. It stood eight feet tall and was covered in mottled fur. Its hands were huge with claws in proportion. Its teeth were the size of human fingers. Remarkably it wore a combat-harness with a laser-rod and concussion globes clipped to it. It carried a vibra-hammer in one hand and a huge meat cleaver in the other. Most amazing of all it did not fall upon Tybald but upon the undead that surrounded him!

    A different spray of lights burned in a chain across the water. The ghouls that trailed behind were skewered by the purple energies, seared from within until they cracked and exploded. Tybald followed the magics to their source and saw a dark-haired woman in a sorceress stance.

    He was so surprised by the lithe magic-worker and her vicious companion brute that he scarcely noticed the warrior holding the thin hilt-cylinder that emitted that searing glow; until the man powered forward and the white light concentrated into a blazing sword of energy. He leaped past the noble’s son and vaulted into the air.

    Something was rising from the stream-bed. Something bigger and much nastier than the ghouls that served her. Indeed, several more of the slithery creatures were tethered by throbbing umbilicals to the thing that rose. Here was the mother of monsters, grown fat and deadly in the dark radiations of the Deadfields.

    The warrior landed atop her and plunged his fiery blade deep between her glowing eyes. She emitted a high shriek, the first sound any of the undead had made since the encounter began. Then she burned.

    The sword-wielder jumped clear as she exploded into blazing gel. Even the parts of her that landed in the black stream continued to burn.

    The battle was over.

    The young traveller stood stunned at the sudden reverse. It was hard for Tybald to comprehend that he was alive, who had despaired at failing his sister half a minute before.

    The huge hairy Mock-Man – Tybald could now see it was one of the genetically-bred slave beasts – dropped the last broken ghoul and stamped it flat.

    The man and the woman approached the lord’s son. “Tybald tan Throg?” the sorceress asked him. The young traveller recognised her now as a recent petitioner at his father’s court. “We’ve been looking for you.”

    “You… you have? Why?”

    The warrior stepped forward and held out his right hand. “She’s Princess Aria. That’s Oglok. I’m John Blackthorn. We’re here to get your sister back.”

***


CONTINUED in Chapter 2: HUNTERS IN A BLIGHTED LAND
in which we properly meet General Blackthorn and his companions, hear what compels Tybald tan Throg on his dangerous adventure, and learn more of the unpleasant Deadfields.

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Original concepts, characters, and situations copyright © 2012 reserved by Ian Watson. Key characters and concepts from the Blackthorn works of Van Allen Plexico copyright © 2012 by him. The right of Ian Watson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988. All rights reserved.

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