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


Chapter One * Latest Chapter * E-mail Us


2.     HUNTERS IN A BLIGHTED LAND

    “Who are you?” Tybald tan Throg asked the strange trio who’d saved him from a gristly death – or undeath – from the water-ghoul horde. Swordsmen were common; warriors with glowing energy-blades that blew up monsters were less so. Sorceresses were rare, especially beautiful ones with raven hair and pale complexions who carried themselves like royalty. Genetically engineered Mock-men were known in Tybald’s Promethei homeland, but not for their military hardware and unilateral ghoul-fighting.

    The Mock-man snarled something fierce and unintelligible in the guttural growl-language of his people.

    The warrior clearly understood it. “Yes. Perhaps we should go somewhere more defensible before we do the full explanations. Find us somewhere, old buddy.”

    The huge hairy creature loped off into the ruined Deadfields village. The sorceress inspected Tybald’s wounds. “Field dressings,” she called to her companion, holding out an imperious hand.

    The warrior reached into one of his belt-pouches and proffered the ordered medical supplies. He wore a tight-fitting black combat suit with silver trim. It was high quality stuff, self-repairing, energy-absorbing, probably proof against small-arms fire and minor sorceries. That kind of kit was hardly standard issue!

    “Hold still,” the woman who’d been introduced as Aria commanded Lord Throg’s son. “This is going to sting.”

    No, she’d been named as Princess Aria. Princess of where?

    Tybald suppressed a cry as the antitoxins on the bandages made contact with his bite and scratch wounds. The warrior – Blackthorn – left him to his bravery and climbed back into the mill to retrieve what he could of the lordling’s kit.

    By the time the tall blonde fighter got back with Tybald’s saddlebags slung over his shoulder the Mock-Man had also returned from locating a safe refuge for the night. The hairy giant led them through the wrecked village to a barn at the far edge that still had a roof and could be barred from the inside. He retrieved four horses from the forest, and a huge golden-maned quadruped with a chitinous hide and a stinger-tail that scared the other beasts almost as much as it did Tybald.

    When the wooden plank dropped into place and sealed out the malevolent night, Tybald tan Throg almost dropped to the ground with exhaustion.

    The other three travellers carried though what was obviously a well-practised routine. Aria conjured a fire. Oglok unpacked sealed containers of food to cook – none of it trying to return from the grave, the lord’s son was relieved to note. Blackthorn checked the perimeter.

    At last the four of them could settle, eat, and drink around the small witchfire. It was the most convivial thing Tybald had experienced for some time.

    “Please tell me now how you came to rescue me – and why,” he asked after he’d crammed as much beef jerky as he could manage into his empty belly. “I’m not ungrateful. Just… baffled.”

    “Ask General Blackthorn,” Aria suggested. “He does this kind of thing. It’s an obsession.”

    “Hey!” objected the blonde warrior. “You asked me to go out and save the planet!”

    “General Blackthorn?” Tybald puzzled. Then the horrible truth dawned. “That’s a senior officer’s combat weave! From the Black Sorcerer’s army!”

    “It is,” agreed the soldier. “But relax. I’m very seriously absent without leave. I’m about as not-with the Black Sorcerer as it’s possible to be.”

    The realm of the Lord of the West was the most distant of the four First Men’s lands from Promethei. Tybald tried to remember what he knew of the Black Sorcerer’s clinically-ordered regime.

    Blackthorn read the young lordling’s face. “We’re working now to bring the Black Sorcerer down,” he explained. “Him and all the First Men who’ve carved Mars up between them for their own selfish purposes for so long. Lord Ruin and his endless wars to winnow the weak. Fatal Laughter and his insane cruelties and lethal whims. The Sorcerer of Night and his lurid obsession with undeath. They’re all going down.”

    Tybald remembered now why these three had appeared at Lord Throg’s court. “You’re the ones behind that slave revolt in Lord Ruin’s combat city, Hades!” he recognised. “And there was some kind of explosion in the Lord of Fatal Laughter’s forges.”

    “That was us. We’re putting together a coalition, and when the time is right we’re going to bring justice to this world.”

    Aria nodded ruefully. “He’s serious. He really intends to do it.”

    Oglok made a mournful keening noise that suggested a fatalistic acceptance of certain death.

    “You came to father’s court to make a case for his sedition,” Tybald recalled. “He wouldn’t hear you.”

    “We thought if anyone would listen it’d be Lord Throg of Promethei,” Blackthorn admitted. “He’s got a rep for being firm but fair. And your nation’s right in the middle between Lord Ruin and the Sorcerer of Night. That can’t be comfortable.”

    “We tithe to both,” the lord’s son confessed. “It’s not easy for us but it’s better than the alternative.” He gestured around him at the Deadfields, where those two Sorcerers had previously clashed.

    Aria took up the story. “Anyhow, we got short shrift until your little sister was kidnapped and you hared off after her. Then Lord Throg was pretty glad of anybody who’d volunteer to run after you into Hesperia. We cut a deal.”

    “A deal?” Tybald echoed suspiciously.

    Blackthorn supplied the detail. “If we get you and Ysilde back home safe and sound, Promethei’s in. Lord Throg’s on-team, at least secretly. He’ll be the first major noble to sign up for a better world.”

    “And where we have one we’ll get more,” the princess added. Her lifetime of court politics served her well in those kinds of calculations.

    “You’re mad!” Tybald told them. The Mock-Man growled agreement. “Completely insane. But I’ll take whatever help I can get to save Ysilde. It’s two days since I last saw any traces of the raiders. I’m starting to fear the worst.”

    “Don’t give up yet,” Blackthorn encouraged the young noble. “Anywhere else we’d be a bit baffled, but luckily this is the Deadfields.”

    “Luckily!” Tybald hadn’t meant to half-sob that exclamation.

    “Yes,” Princess Aria confirmed. “You probably noticed I’m a sorceress?”

    It had been the first thing Tybald had noticed about her. The searing neon arcane bolts were hard to miss. Yet he couldn’t see any of the usual signs of a magic-worker; no collection gems piercing her skin, no bolted-on arcane receptors, no obvious thaumaturgic parasite hanging on her; unless the delicate necklace of gems she wore around her slender neck was some kind of artefact?

    Aria guessed his speculation “It’s all under the skin. Proper arcane wetware, grafted to my nervous system since childhood, enhancing my natural affinity with the energy fields of Mars. I’m superbly trained, highly talented, and extraordinarily powerful.”

    “And modest,” added Blackthorn. “Don’t forget that.”

    “The point is,” the princess went on, “that my magics can locate human life at quite a distance. Normally that wouldn’t be much help; the people I sense could be the kidnappers or might be any number of forest peasants. But in Hesperia…”

    “There is no other human life!” Tybald realised.

    Oglok snarled and scratched his armpit to indicate his lack of regard for magic. Mock-men had suffered bad experiences with sorceries.

    “Perhaps we should get some sleep?” suggested Blackthorn diplomatically. “I’m on first watch.”

***


    A pair of wandering zombies disturbed the sleepers sometime around three but Oglok dispatched them so effectively that there was nothing left to reanimate. Tybald hoped he hadn’t eaten them. Otherwise the night passed without incident and the hunters saddled up to look for the stolen Ysilde.

    They headed back up to the fork and risked the other path down into the dead forest. Oglok led the way on his chimera. The first undead creature that crossed its path was shredded before anyone in the party could even react.

    “Where on Mars did he get…?” began Tybald.

    “He won’t say,” Aria replied. “Neither will he sent it back there.”

    As the morning progressed the princess grew more and more quiet whilst she projected her mind further and further out. Eventually Blackthorn had to tether her horse to his. “Don’t push too far, Aria. We can’t afford to lose you.”

    “I’m… fine…” the sorceress answered faintly. “Just… extended…”

    “Can she see Ysilde?” Tybald asked anxiously.

    “There’s something I think…” Aria whispered. “Far to the north, at the very edge of my range. We need to take a path that way, John. But be careful.”

    The princess’ warning was well founded. A league down the overgrown trackway they encountered a rusty but viable heavy weapons cyborg. Seven feet tall and bolted into a steel combat frame, the insane drone shot off a shrieker shell that hammered Oglok and his mount to the ground before combat even began.

    Blackthorn jumped from his own black steed and rolled low to avoid a line of detonation pellets. The silver cylinder in his hand sparked to life and was suddenly the hilt of that blazing sword!

    Tybald fumbled for his own vibra-blade. He was no slouch with it, but Blackthorn made him look like an amateur. The General caught the next spray of munitions on his weapon’s edge then shouldered in to jam the burning sword through the top of the cyborg’s head.

    By the time the lord’s son was at the combat the battle machine was a burned-out crumpled heap.

    “It was already dead,” Aria reported, phasing back from wherever her wandering senses had taken her. “That’s why I didn’t spot it. The zombie parts were driving the cyborg parts.”

    “One of Ruin’s old war toys,” Blackthorn recognised. “I guess there’s all kinds of junk left here from the conflict that turned this place into the Deadfields.”

    Oglok rose unsteadily rubbing his ears. His chimera was already up and kicking the fallen cyborg. The Mock-Man howled his opinion of Lord Ruin, the Sorcerer of Night, and anyone who had ever been in their family trees.

    Tybald was more interested in Blackthorn’s weapon. “What’s that?” he ventured. “At first I thought it was a thermal lance but it’s more focussed than that. Why is it the only thing that kills these undead so they don’t come back?”

    “Well, the working theory is that this is the Sword of Light,” the General admitted.

    Tybald paused for a moment. “The Hallow Blade? From the holy book?” Blackthorn might as well have claimed to be wielding Excalibur.

    “We generally blame Aria,” Blackthorn confided.

    Tybald stifled a dozen more questions. All that mattered was getting to Ysilde in time.

    They pushed on through the dead forest as the day lengthened. Fast-moving Phobos span past overhead, taking a mere three hours to traverse the skies west to east since it orbited faster than Mars’ axial rotation. The sun, appearing only half the size it did from Earth, began to dip towards evening again.

    “I’ve got them!” Aria cried suddenly. Keeping her eyes closed she pointed one well-manicured finger a little off the trail to the left. “Nine human life-signs, all with meagre arcane fields.” That meant there were no sorcerers, witches, espers, tekes, or shamans amongst them. Every being’s bio-aura interacted with the energies that sustained life on Mars; few had the capacity or control to use it to produce magical effects.

    “How far, princess?” Blackthorn asked

    “Not far. A mile? I missed them before because there’s an ore-rich ridge masking them.”

    “Is it Ysilde?” Tybald asked urgently. “Is she all right?”

    “I can’t distinguish,” the sorceress warned.

    “We’ll take the horses half-way and tether them,” Blackthorn decided. He certainly took charge like a General. “Oglok, keep that gory beast well-tied away from our other mounts – or lunch as he thinks of them. Aria, can you manage a temporary masking spell to keep them for being noticed? We’ll go in on foot and try to get out again before dark.”

    They left the road and cut cross-country. After a short while the rotting oaks gave way to fields overgrown with dead grass. Beyond that was a manor estate, a farm, some cottages, and a fortified house. Too small to be a castle and too crenellated to be a stately home, the grey-stone building had the same desolate look as all the abandoned dwellings in ruined Hesperia.

    “They’re in there,” Aria confirmed, indicating the big house. “Underground, I think. This close in the auras all fuzz together and I can’t get fine detail.”

    Tybald loosed his vibra-sword. “We’ll have to be careful,” he warned. “These raiders cut through some of our best men. They’re ruthless and dangerous. Whatever happens we mustn’t let them harm Ysilde.”

    “Agreed,” said Blackthorn. “So when we go in, your job’s going to be to get to your sister and protect her. Forget anything else. Leave the bad guys to us. You cover her, literally if you have to. Clear?”

    Tybald nodded.

    “Okay. Aria, you’re on shock and awe. Send in the lightshow, fizzing shriekers, that kind of thing. Buy Tybald the time to get to Ysilde. Oglok and I will take the direct approach at close quarters so there’s a minimum of gunplay. If it goes wrong and I shout ‘down’ everybody hits the floor and I toss off a fireball from the Sword of Light. Any questions?”

    The princess flinched suddenly and cried out.

    “Aria?” Blackthorn asked sharply.

    “Eight life signs!” the princess gasped, clutching her temples. “No – seven! Six… four…”

    Tybald’s eyes went wide and desperate. “What? What’s happening?”

    “Three… two…one…”

***


CONTINUED in Chapter 3: Guardians of the Shadow-Door
in which our heroes discover what becomes of raiders who break into the wrong place.

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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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