Blackthorn passed through the dark portal that had been sealed off in the manor house’s cellar for so long. Oglok the Mock-Man, Aria, Princess of Mars, and Tybald tan Throg, heir of Promethei followed after.
The shadow-door lived up to its name. For three heartbeats there was nothing, no sound nor light nor even the feel of ground beneath the feet of the travellers. Then they emerged through the far gateway into a darkened stone-cut chamber.
“Look!” cried Tybald. He pointed to an ornate sarcophagus with a life-size carving of some long-dead noble atop it; but his attention was directed to the three bloody corpses piled around its base.
Blackthorn checked them carefully. In the Deadfields those that had been newly slaughtered tended to get up and fight again. These three creatures were not coming back.
Oglok snarled that these were Weaselar, another of the mad hybrid races created by the sorcerous First Men in their ages-long internecine strife. The short-furred pack-hunters could be vicious in numbers and were smart enough to use whatever tools and weapons they could steal from their prey. These three had been ripped to shreds recently enough that their blood was still warm.
Blackthorn held up his Sword of Light to examine the chamber. It was undoubtedly a tomb. It had that cold dampness and dull echo of a place deep underground.
“What’s the range on these shadow-doors?” Blackthorn asked Aria. The wall through which they’d passed showed no signs of a lightless transport archway; the journey they’d made was clearly one-way.
“Planet-wide, if they’re powerful enough,” the sorceress princess admitted. “But they’re usually unstable. And rare. They can only be made by the dead.”
“Oh,” Tybald said unhappily. His missing sister might have been brought this way. If being kidnapped by raiders for slavery wasn’t bad enough, now she might be in the hands of an undead that could slaughter three weaselar with ease and had transformed her kidnappers into unique and grisly gut-warrior zombies.
“So we could be anywhere?” Blackthorn checked.
“Or nowhere,” Aria supplied. “The old kingdom of Daedal had a shadow-door that led to their Hall of Reflections, a place of Ancient magic that existed in the ripples of Mars’ arcane field. But I think this place is a physical location. The Hall of Reflections felt… different.”
“When did you go to…?” began Blackthorn, then shook his head. “None of my business, I guess. Let’s deal with getting out of here and finding the last survivor of that raiding party. Can anyone spot anything as useful as an exit?”
Tybald noticed for the first time that there was no obvious way out. A crush of claustrophobia pressed in on him. “There must be a secret door,” he reasoned, more to calm himself than for his companions to hear. “Those weaselar got in here and I doubt they used that shadow-door.”
Oglok examined the gory Weaselar remains. He snorted that they smelled of surface pollen and burrowing. They’d probably dug down into the tomb looking for food or shelter.
Blackthorn translated the Mock-Man’s comments for Tybald and Aria. “He says Weasalar are notorious for being able to break in to places. They clearly didn’t come down from the Deadlands, so we’re somewhere else.”
“But they died in a sealed room,” Tybald pointed out. “And whoever killed them isn’t in this room any more.”
Oglok growled reminder that neither were four unaccounted-for dead raiders whose fellows had been turned into undead gut-warriors.
“Everyone check for hidden doors,” Blackthorn called out. “But watch for traps too. Back on Earth the pyramid builders installed all kinds of deadfalls and nasty surprises for tomb-raiders.”
That was the second time that old Earth-that-was had been mentioned. “Princess Aria called you a barbarian from Earth,” Tybald noted to the General.
Blackthorn snorted. “Sure. I come from a stable democracy with free speech and universal franchise to a planet run by four unstable tyrants at eternal war with each other and I’m the barbarian.”
Aria footnoted her companion’s comments. “General Blackthorn’s mind was lifted through time by the Black Sorcerer. His consciousness was dragged from his old self’s point of death in Earth’s legendary times, from long before humans ever set foot on Mars, and it was housed in his current body. He was intended to become the General of the Black Sorcerer’s legions. I rescued him before he could be implanted with obedience wetware and now I keep him as a pet.”
“Hah!” the Earthman scorned. “What actually happened was I got away from the Black Sorcerer and Aria came scampering after me to save her from the bad man. She told me what was happening round here, made pretty eyes and begged me to do something about it. I took pity on her and decided to fix her world.”
The young woman and the General exchanged glares, but there was something else behind them. Both remembered what was actually said: Mars cries out for aid and as Princess of Mars I am calling you, and begging you, and anointing you to save it from destruction!
“We’d better concentrate on getting out of here,” Aria said, suddenly sober.
“Yeah,” agreed Blackthorn.
Tybald wasn’t sure what to believe. Either these were the biggest fantasists he’d ever met or he was in the company of legends. “Where are you the princess of?” he finally ventured to Aria. “I don’t believe the heralds ever said.”
“She won’t tell,” Blackthorn answered for her. “Makes sense, I guess. We’re making kind of a fuss. Blowing up bad guy bases and taking down warlords. If the First Men knew who her people were they’d certainly offer reprisal to ‘em.”
“I was taken to the Bastion of the Black Sorcerer as a child,” was all Aria said. “It’s a long time since I was home.”
Oglok made a strangled mournful sound. Mock-Men lived in complicated close-knit family units. All his kin had been captured by slavers and worked to death in the hellish Forges of Cryse. Only he remained, and that was why he fought beside Blackthorn against the rule of the First Men.
He covered his momentary weakness by finding the hidden push-button that caused the secret door to grind open.
Beyond the low tunnel was a wider corridor, a ceremonial funeral way to a dozen coffered burial chambers. Everything reeked of age, although there were no cobwebs.
Five more weaslar corpses were distributed across the passageway. Their collapsed entrance tunnel of broken brickwork offered no escape.
Each side-room contained a sarcophagus carved with old Elysian runes. Aria traced on inscription, “Here reside the mortal remains of Mage Saxolius, who was dismantled – yes, I think that’s what it means – was dismantled as ordained by the Sorcerer of Night in the year… I think this was about seven hundred cycles back.”
All the sarcophagi offered similar information.
“Twelve ‘dismantled’ wizards?” shuddered Tybald. “Why?”
Oglok growled for them to shelve the history lesson. There was something wrong at the other end of the passageway.
Blackthorn shone his Sword of Light in that direction. The four missing bandits were there, nailed to the wall beside a metal door at the far end of the corridor. They hung transfixed by long iron spikes and as they perceived Blackthorn they begged for help.
“For the gods’ sake…”
Their agony was clear. Tybald took a step forward before Blackthorn halted him. “Aria?” the General prompted.
“Dead,” the princess replied grimly. “And still in agony.”
Blackthorn gestured for his comrades to stay put. He moved past the crypt chambers carefully, checking above and below as well as side to side. The pinioned men’s screams got louder.
“You want to be let down?” the General asked them. “You recognise you’re dead, right?”
“Just stop the pain!” a grizzled bandit begged. His eyes bled.
“Answer a few questions first. Where’s the girl you kidnapped?”
“Release us. We’ll tell you!”
“Yeah, that’s not the way it works. What happened to Ysilde?”
The pinned raiders returned to their shrieks of anguish.
Tybald called to them from further up the corridor. “There was a ninth with you when you died. Was it my sister?” The creatures ignored him.
“Right,” sighed Blackthorn. “We do this the hard way then.” He raised his Sword of Light and projected a fireball at the metal door.
The bright orange globe burst in a searing flash around the nailed bravos. Just before they burned their bellies split, spewing out more of the lamprey-like guts that had sprayed from their fellows in the mansion cellars. The long gory ribbons flared as the sphere of flame overtook them, burning like wicks.
Aria winced and clutched her temple. “John! Watch out! It was a trap!”
The undead had been left there to be destroyed. As their corporeal forms were rendered to ash the black spirits inside them welled out at the General. Blackthorn had no time to catch even the first of them before it plunged at him, seeking to claw the very life-energy from him.
But instead of ripping his life-force to shreds, the dark silhouettes screeched as they had in their gut-warrior forms and skittered back, burning with the purple-green energies that Aria had conjured during her earlier preparations.
“You placed a defence on Blackthorn, princess?” Tybald understood.
“On all of us. We’re against a powerful creature that was held in by etheric barriers? We’d be fools to go in without protection against life-leeching.”
Blackthorn rolled back to his feet and caught the returning spectre with his Sword of Light. The Hallow-blade flashed as it made contact, evaporating the phantom instantly.
The other three silhouettes dived in at Blackthorn’s team. Oglok was ready. He’d worked out that Aria’s protections meant that he could hurt the undead. The normally-incorporeal murder spirits were vulnerable to his angry grasp. He seized a pair of them, ignoring their soul-chilling touch, and slammed them together with all his strength.
Tybald’s vibra-sword passed straight through the last of them. Caught in the moment he followed the Mock-Man’s example, seized his spectral attacker, and head-butted it. “For Ysilde!”
Blackthorn came up behind the ragged silhouettes and sliced them with the Sword of Light.
Tybald slumped to the cold flagstones. Aria’s magics had protected him from the spectres’ worst, but he felt as if he’d fought for half a day rather than a few seconds.
“Those were rather specialised murder-spectres,” Aria observed. “From what I’ve read they are created when a hateful man is killed by his enemies. I didn’t know the spell worked on sentient undead too.” She looked intently at the black metal seal ahead of them. “Somebody is an expert at making undead.”
Tybald struggled to his feet. “That someone has my sister. Let’s go!”
Oglok slapped him on the back. It was a sign of approval but it nearly put the lord’s son onto the floor again.
Blackthorn examined the ornate metal door. It was forged from interlocking leaves of iron, connected by grooves that presumably allowed it to iris open. There was no obvious mechanism to encourage it to do so.
“It’s magical,” Aria supplied. “There’ll be a trigger phrase or something similar.”
The princess looked more closely at the door. “Carve a hole in it with a Hallow?”
There was no need. The door clunked. Heavy levers shifted, then began to grind open, leaf by leaf.
Blackthorn stood ready.
Beyond the seal was a circular chamber. A three foot ledge rimmed the walls. A plinth in the middle of the room was lit by a pale blue light shaft. The space between platform and perimeter walkway was open, dropping down to unfathomable dark depths. A narrow bridge led from door to central island.
A gaunt figure in archaic robes awaited them, spotlighted by the eerie light-column. The leader of the raiders quivered at his feet, rolled into a ball, gibbering and sweating.
“Who are you?” Tybald demanded. “Where’s my sister?”
The thin robed creature unfolded his arms. His face was shadowed under a grey hood. A single red spark flickered in the darkness beneath his cowl. “Call me Incantrus Veil,” he replied in soft deep tones.
Aria breathed in sharply. “An Incantrus? Undead intelligence into which all the arcane knowledge of one kind of magic has been mystically crammed? Walking spellbook.”
“Bad news?” guessed Blackthorn.
“Yes.” Aria couldn’t think of a quip that met the occasion. The Lord of Night created Incantri very rarely; it cost him too many resources. Each was urgently targeted for destruction by the other First Men. Lord Ruin built his floating war-cities and destruction engines. The Sorcerer of Fatal Laughter created elaborate robots and monsters that devastated all in their way. The Black Sorcerer had his airship fleet, his weird science creations and his Heralds. The Sorcerer of Night preferred his military assets to be personified; and here one was.
“Incantrus Veil,” Blackthorn called. “So you’re Lord Erebus’s minion!”
The gaunt undead considered his answer. “Sometimes,” he conceded at last. “On the other hand, my creator did little to free me from five centuries of confinement inside one of Ruin’s etheric shells. I’m not rushing to reclaim my place at his side.”
“Beware, John Blackthorn,” Aria whispered. “This isn’t some once-human soul trapped between life and death. This is as much a construct as any robot A.I., tacked together from shreds of dead spirits and imbued with intelligence. Now we know why those mages in the tombs were dismantled!”
Veil appeared to notice her. “A sorceress. A strong one, too. Mars flows through her. How interesting.”
Blackthorn took a step out onto the bridge. “We’re looking for a girl kidnapped by raiders – the same bandits you slaughtered a short while ago. That guy at your feet is the last one. Can we talk to him?”
The Incantrus looked down at the cringing wreck at his feet. “I don’t think you’d get much from him now. I kept one of them to use for storage. I jammed his mind with all kinds of things I wanted to carry home with me, thoughts and ideas that occurred during my long incarceration. Humans tend to break and go insane when that is done to them.”
“Where’s Ysilde?” Tybald demanded. “Tell us what you did with her!”
“Or what?” challenged Veil.
“Or we’ll end you,” said Blackthorn.
“Now that is hardly a realistic threat,” the Incantrus argued. “Don’t imagine because you cut down some hastily-cobbled guards that you can harm me. Your little sorceress has already told you what I am, an undying repository of specialist magical knowledge. And here you are, in the very place I was raised, the tombs of those wizards who were carved apart to provide my component pieces. My place of power, if you will.”
The raider at his feet sobbed to himself like an abandoned baby.
“Tell us where she is, fiend!” shouted Tybald, brandishing his vibra-blade. Blackthorn rolled his eyes.
“No,” said Incantrus Veil. He turned to Aria. “You didn’t discern what aspect of magic it was that I personify, did you, little sorceress?”
Blackthorn decided the time for talk was over. The villain was working his way towards his big denouement; best to start hitting him now. The Earthman fired off a laser-bolt from the Sword of Light and charged.
The bolt vanished before it reached the Incantrus. A black square opened up to swallow it.
Six other pure black rectangles appeared all round Oglok, Aria, and Tybald. A much larger one blocked the bridge path to Veil himself.
“Shadow-doors!” warned Aria. “That’s his mastery! He can open up…”
The hordes of the dead poured through the portals. They seethed over the mortals, tearing and scratching. Tybald went down under the sheer weight of attackers. The sheer press of them knocked Oglok over the side. He tumbled into the chasm, taking a dozen zombies and skeletons with him. Aria’s shields flickered but held for a moment more.
Something huge and tentacled and quite dead slammed out of the largest portal straight into Blackthorn.
“Yes,” said the Incantrus. “I am the undead arcane personification of shadow magery. I can open up doors to the deep pits where seething restless dead swarm and crawl by their thousands and bring them here. Or I can create portals to send you to them.”
“We have to step through them!” Aria cried. “No-one can make a shadow-door move!”
A horizontal portal opened on the bridge under Blackthorn’s feet. The General tried to catch the edge as he fell. His fingers grasped at nothing. He tumbled into it. The undead kraken-kin vanished with him. Another floor portal dropped Tybald away into some separate hell.
The zombies and skeletons surrounded Aria and tore through her arcane barriers.
“The end,” said Incantrus Veil.